ROCHESTER, Mich. –- For its season-opening game, Missouri’s schedule didn’t allow much time to work out any first-game jitters.
The Tigers not only played in Rochester, Mich., but they also faced a fierce opponent in Oakland University.
Missouri coach Quin Snyder knows he set his team up for a challenge. He was willing to meet tough nonconference matchups to get seniors Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson an opportunity to play in their hometown of Detroit.
“This is a game we wanted to play for Rickey and AJ,” Snyder said.
Paulding graduated from Renaissance High on the west side of Detroit while Johnson attended Pershing High in Detroit’s east side.
Paulding and Johnson showed the hometown crowd why they earned spots on the preseason All-Big 12 Conference team. They combined for the Tigers’ first six points in two minutes. Paulding also counted a steal and a block as the Tigers took an early 6-0 lead.
“The composure those guys played with in this kind of circumstance shows what kind of players they are,” Snyder said.
Paulding capped the night with 21 points and 6-for-6 free throw shooting. Johnson added 19 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.
Sports Illustrated named the Grizzlies to its Fab 45, a list of 45 teams not in the Top 25 it predicts will play in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.
“They’ve played against really tough competition already this year,” Snyder said. “I’d be surprised if they didn’t win their league.”
Snyder said the Tigers started the season with the perfect test.
The Tigers opened the season away from Hearnes Center for the first time since 1999, when they opened against Wisconsin in Syracuse, N.Y.
“We needed to be in a game like this,” he said. “I wasn’t saying that at the four-minute mark, but I’m glad now.”
GETTING PHYSICAL: Senior Josh Kroenke left Oakland University with a few souvenirs he didn’t want: A black eye and an aching neck. The physical matchup spawned 19 Oakland fouls and 20 from the Tigers.
At the start of the second half, Kroenke set up for a screen when he collided with the Grizzlies’ Cortney Scott. Kroenke picked up a personal foul on the play, but after taking an elbow to the head, he didn’t get to his feet quickly.
He left the game but didn’t watch from the sidelines for long. With 13:08 left in the second half, Kroenke hit a 3-pointer that put the Tigers ahead 58-56. Less than a minute later, he delivered another 3-pointer from the same spot to tie the game at 61.
“I didn’t even watch any other part when I was on the sideline,” Snyder said. “I just listened to the other crowd cheering, and I knew that something wasn’t right so I tried to get back in there the first chance I got.”
Even though Paulding, Linas Kleiza and Travon Bryant picked up four fouls each, the Tigers capitalized on the Grizzlies’ fouls with 23-for-25 free throw shooting.
THE SIXTH MAN: O’Rena, the Oakland University’s Athletics Center, holds 4,000 people, for any standard Grizzlies’ game. When the last fan was accounted for, O’Rena’s doors overflowed with 4,055 in attendance.
After five straight road games, the Grizzlies were ready for an upset on their home court. Even though the Tigers prevailed, Snyder said the gym’s environment played its own role in Saturday’s game.
“You come back to this gym, and you’re on your home floor, and you’re loose, and you’re good,” Snyder said. “Tonight’s a perfect example of anytime you go through adversity, you rely more on each other.”