COLUMBIA — For the first time in a long time, laughter could be overheard on the Missouri men’s basketball team’s bus.
“It’s probably going to be one of the happiest trips home since Oregon,” Missouri junior guard Marcus Denmon said over the background noise during a telephone interview. “I mean, we haven’t had any (Big 12) road wins. It’s good for us to get our first one."
No. 20 Missouri captured the elusive Big 12 Conference road win with a 76-70 victory over Iowa State on Saturday in Ames, Iowa. Denmon’s teammates laughed, talked loudly and even sang as they celebrated around him. The conference road loss stigma was finally gone.
But before the players had changed out of their jerseys, before they boarded the bus, they were in a huddle on the sideline of Hilton Coliseum. No one was laughing then.
With just more than six minutes left in the game, the score was tied at 58. Missouri coach Mike Anderson called a timeout. The building was loud, and for good reason. Iowa State had finally tied Missouri after multiple tries to even the score had fallen short.
Missouri found itself in a familiar position. Five times the Tigers had lost Big 12 Conference road games, some of them in the same fashion this game was heading. The Cyclones were living up to their toughness. While they were only 1-10 in conference play, they have been tough to beat at home this season.
Missouri led early. The Tigers established a 21-9 lead with 13 minutes left in the first half. The Cyclones’ short bench had already proved to be their weak point in a loss at Mizzou Arena earlier this season. This game was looking to be no different. In fact, Iowa State's bench was even shorter now. Iowa State senior forward Jamie Vanderbeken was out with a high ankle sprain, and senior guard Diante Garrett was not starting for the first time in 91 games because he missed a team meeting Saturday morning.
Eventually, Garrett checked in, and the Cyclones’ fortune began to change. He facilitated the offense, scoring and finding looks for his teammates.
“He’s a good player. He’s a general out there on the floor. He’s one of the leaders," Denmon said.
Missouri’s second unit came in off the bench and faltered. Nonstarters only scored two first-half points. Missouri outrebounded the Cyclones, but the Tigers’ turnovers gave Iowa State the opportunity it needed to scratch back.
When the Cyclones would get within two, Denmon kept his team ahead. He scored on slashes and drives, not to mention his trademark true 3-pointers. He scored 17 first-half points and finished with 25.
The cycle continued, with Iowa State creeping up, and Denmon urging his team one step ahead, until the half ended with Missouri leading 35-33.
“I tell you what, he’s the first-half man,” Anderson said in his postgame radio interview. “He’s playing at a high level right now, and that’s good to see. It means a whole lot to our basketball team.”
In the second half, Missouri made a point of trying to score inside. Denmon was joined in his scoring efforts most notably by junior forwards Laurence Bowers (16 points) and Ricardo Ratliffe (10 points).
But, after a Justin Safford 3-pointer rimmed out, Iowa State got a fast-break score to tie, and Anderson called the timeout. This time, things would be different.
“You always learn from the past and the mistakes," Denmon said. "We’re a team, I feel, that’s growing and learning. We don’t make those same mistakes. We’re learning how to close out wins.”
Coming out of the timeout, Ratliffe scored, and Iowa State didn’t tie again.
“After that timeout, I thought we came in and went right to Ricardo Ratliffe. I think he delivered,” Anderson said.
Final minutes turned into fouls and free throws, which Missouri made enough of to hold on. It wasn’t a pretty win, but the Tigers are happy to have it. Denmon said his team’s focus is now on Missouri's home game against Baylor, but the confidence from the road win will carry over for upcoming trips.
“When those next road challenges come, we will be prepared for them as well,” Denmon said.