The big players came up large for Missouri this time around.
A strong inside game helped No. 10 Missouri beat UNC-Greensboro 106-98 on Sunday at Hearnes Center. Center Arthur Johnson and forwards Travon Bryant and Linas Kleiza combined for 53 points in the victory.
Five Tigers scored in double figures to overcome a sloppy defensive effort. Johnson’s 19 points tied him with guard Jason Conley for the team high. Bryant was a perfect 8-of-8 from the field and finished with 17 points. Kleiza sparked the offense in the first half, scoring 14 of his 17 points before halftime and adding nine rebounds.
“I’m really pleased with our interior guys and how they’re playing together,” Tigers coach Quin Snyder said.
Johnson struggled in Missouri’s overtime loss on Dec. 13 at Gonzaga, scoring eight points on 3-of-10 shooting. The Tigers (4-1) attempted to get Johnson the ball more consistently against the Spartans (4-5), and Johnson responded, converting eight of his 10 attempts in 26 minutes.
Having confidence in each other has been important to the success of the big men, Johnson said.
“When you come out of the game, you know there’s somebody right behind you that’s capable of scoring on the block,” he said. “We pretty much know how it’s going to go in the post. We have a pretty good rotation going down there.”
Bryant and Kleiza continue to split time at power forward; Bryant played for 22 minutes and Kleiza for 17. Kevin Young scored five points and had five rebounds in a season-high 15 minutes in relief of Johnson.
Kleiza said he knows all of the big men are capable of providing a spark when they enter the game.
“I know if I sit down, then AJ or Travon will go in and pick us up,” he said.
Johnson and Kleiza led the Tigers on a 12-4 run early in the first half. With the game tied at 11, Kleiza scored on a Thomas Gardner miss, and Johnson followed with two layups and a free throw for a quick 7-0 run. A hook shot and a three-pointer from Kleiza extended the lead to 23-15.
Another big play by Kleiza sparked the Tigers. With Missouri ahead 34-31 and 6:10 left in the first half, Kleiza took a Jimmy McKinney pass and drove quickly down the lane. He scored on a two-handed dunk to bring the crowd to its feet.
Senior swingman Rickey Paulding briefly broke out of a shooting slump to lead a second half rally. With his team ahead 81-76 with 8:26 remaining, Paulding made a 3-pointer from the right wing for his first points. Two possessions later, Paulding drove along the baseline for a layup and followed that with a 3-pointer from the left corner. A free throw capped an 11-0 Missouri run and extended Missouri’s lead to 92-76.
Paulding finished 3-of-9 from the field for nine points. He found other ways to contribute, adding six assists and two steals in a team-high 28 minutes.
“I liked how he handled (the slump),” Snyder said. “He didn’t hang his head and even had a smile after missing a layup.”
Paulding said he has refocused himself on defense during this rough stretch.
“I just have to throw myself into defense and try to be aggressive on offense,” he said.
Snyder blamed a poor defensive showing on a lack of communication, as the Tigers struggled to rotate over to cover the open shooter and allowed the Spartans to make 11 3-pointers. Spartans guard Jay Joseph had 18 points at halftime and finished with 22 after Paulding held him in check in the second half. Spartans forward Ronnie Burrell almost doubled his season average, scoring 16 of his 22 points in the second half. The Spartans’ offensive output was 29 points higher than their season average.
Both teams shot exceptionally well, with the Spartans finishing at 56 percent and the Tigers at 64 percent. Missouri topped 100 points for the first time since Dec. 6, 2001, when they scored 117 against Southern.
Scoring so proficiently was a bonus, but Bryant said the team knows it must improve defensively.
“That’s nice, but it’s not going to be that way every night,” he said. “We have to do a better job defending.”