COLUMBIA — It's a special game when Truman the Tiger repels down from the rafters onto Norm Stewart Court before the start of a game and the fans are all dressed in black.
A sellout crowd of 15,061 cheered with every basket the Missouri men's basketball team scored Tuesday night against No. 5 Florida. The noise from the biggest ovations after the most exciting plays seemed to send a gust of air swirling around Mizzou Arena.
Missouri (19-7, 8-5 SEC)
at Kentucky (18-8, 9-4 SEC)
WHEN: 8 p.m. CST
WHERE: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
RADIO: KTGR/103.1 & 100.5 FM, 1580 AM
The charged atmosphere could have quickly changed, though, if not for the leadership of Tigers guard Phil Pressey.
Missouri had trailed for much of the game, but Pressey helped bring the Tigers ahead of the Gators, capping off a six-point run by making a layup while being fouled. Moments later he found forward Laurence Bowers for a turnaround jumper to put Missouri up 61-60 with 1:15 to play.
A little later, however, it looked like a bad decison by Pressey would lead to a disappointing end to an otherwise entertaining night for Missouri fans.
With the Tigers still ahead 61-60 with 21 seconds to play, Pressey made a wild 3-point attempt with six seconds to go on the shot clock. The ball bounced off the rim to guard Earnest Ross, who was called for traveling when he fell, giving Florida a chance for a game-winning shot.
But with the help of Pressey's leadership, the Tigers held on. Pressey was seen whispering in a frustrated Ross' ear in the timeout following the turnover.
Florida guard Kenny Boynton missed a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, and Tigers guard Keion Bell secured the rebound. Bell was fouled and made two free throws, giving Missouri the 63-60 victory after Gators guard Mike Rosario air-balled a final 3-point attempt.
The Tigers players celebrated, some embracing each other. Others standing at mid-court flexing while a throng of photographers surrounded them.
Pressey's leadership was evident throughout the night, calling for quick huddles whenever there was a stoppage in play and when bench players were rotating in.
Even when Missouri was down 13 at one point in the second half, Pressey made sure his teammates believed in one another.
"I'm continually just going, keeping my guys together, whether we're up or down," Pressey said. "I know that helps us out. Coaches have been harping on me to do that."
Last season, Pressey deferred a leadership role to vocal veterans Kim English and Marcus Denmon, playing what Missouri coach Frank Haith called a "Robin" role.
But Haith challenged Pressey to be a leader this season.
Haith said he told Pressey that, "for us to win, you must be the guy who’s willing to step up and hold guys accountable."
Haith said he tried to teach Pressey how to communicate to his teammates in a positive way and how to understand his teammates and their personalities.
"He’s like light years of where he was at in terms of how confident he is, talking to his teammates in huddles," Haith said. "He has command with his teammates, it’s encouraging to see how far he’s come."
Missouri will need a similar show of leadership when it goes on the road Saturday to face Kentucky (18-8, 9-4 in the Southeastern Conference).
"I think they're athletic and play great in transition," Haith said. "Obviously (Julius) Mays and (Kyle) Wiljter can shoot the ball, but I think the biggest thing is they're going to put the ball on us, they're going to attack us in transition."
Wiljter is averaging 11.6 points per game. Guard Archie Goodwin leads the team with 13.7 points per game. Mays leads the Wildcats in assists, averaging three per game.
Missouri can only play Kentucky if the weather allows the team to fly to Lexington, Ky., on Friday afternoon or evening.
Tigers basketball players spent Thursday afternoon practicing at Mizzou Arena. Players stranded in the snow were picked up by an "expert snow driver," according to director of basketball operations Toby Lane.