ROCHESTER, Mich. — Most nonconference games against Mid-Continent Conference opponents are guaranteed victories.
Oakland University is not the average mid-major opponent, and Rawle Marshall and Mike Helms are not typical opponents.
Despite committing 20 turnovers and struggling against a talented Oakland squad, Missouri opened its season with a win, defeating the Golden Grizzlies 90-85 at the O’Rena in suburban Detroit on Saturday.
Missouri center Arthur Johnson, from Detroit’s Pershing High, had 19 points and 11 rebounds Even though he expected a competitive game, he said he knew the No. 5 Tigers would get Oakland’s best shot.
“To play at their house, it was a big game for them, but it’s a game that means just as much to us,” Johnson said. “I know a bunch of those guys, and I knew they would come out and fight.”
Marshall and Helms combined for 48 of Oakland’s points. Helms, the NCAA’s top returning scorer from last season, fouled out with 8:12 to play and the Tigers ahead 70-67. After two Josh Kroenke free throws, reserve center Shawn Hopes took control, scoring Oakland’s next four points to cut the Missouri lead to 72-71.
A 3-pointer and two free throws from Rickey Paulding moved the Tigers ahead 79-73 with 5:39 to play. Marshall, who scored a game-high 27 points, answered with two 3-pointers, with a Johnson basket in between, that brought Oakland within 81-79.
Johnson put the exclamation point on the game on the next play, slamming home a pass from Linas Kleiza to extend the Missouri lead to four. Jimmy McKinney and Paulding, a Detroit native, made their free throws down the stretch, and the Tigers held on.
Paulding’s contribution came early in the game, when he scored 11 of Missouri’s first 21 points. He struggled with foul trouble, as four fouls forced him to be less aggressive than he would have liked to be in the final eight minutes. He finished with 21 points on 6-of-12 shooting.
Coach Quin Snyder said he was impressed with the focus of Johnson and Paulding, the two Detroit products, who didn’t wilt under the pressure of friends and family in the crowd or Oakland’s aggressive defense.
“The composure that those guys played with shows the kind of players they have become,” he said. “It was a difficult night for AJ. with all the pressure, we didn’t get him the touches that we want. And Rickey had foul troubles all night.”
After committing five turnovers in a rough first half, McKinney scored 15 of his 21 points and had one turnover in the second half. The key, McKinney said, was being able to adjust to Oakland’s pressure.
“As the game goes along, you get adapted to the refs and to the defense,” he said. “You just take what the defense gives you. I started beating the traps and getting the ball where it needed to be for us to be effective.”
A McKinney 3-pointer put the Tigers ahead for good with slightly less than 10 minutes to play. He also went 8-for-8 from the free-throw line.
“When (the shot is) open, I’m not afraid to take it,” McKinney said. “I think that when it’s crunch time, we’re still gonna go to AJ or Rickey. But if I see a lane, I’m going to take it. I know they have confidence in me and I have great confidence in (my teammates).”
Snyder said he knew his Tigers would not overlook Oakland but credited the Grizzlies’ determination in defeat.
“Those guys played very well; give them credit,” he said. “We didn’t play as physical as we needed to. We hit each other in practice harder than we did tonight. (But) our last four minutes, our execution was terrific. We missed a couple shots, but we got the ball in the right people’s hands.”
Johnson said he was nervous and excited to be playing close to home for the first time in his Missouri career, but he doesn’t want to come back to Rochester again soon.
“It’s a big game coming home,” he said. “But I don’t want to come here any more.”