Confidence boost

Tigers’ triumph
gives team hope
Sunday, January 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:50 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

In basketball, there are no style points. Each win counts the same, be it a 30-point blowout or a double-overtime squeaker. When your team is struggling to find a consistent effort, you will take any win you can get.

In desperate need of a victory before moving into a brutal stretch of its schedule, Missouri defeated Texas A&M 82-77 on Saturday at Hearnes Center.

After losing four of their past five, the Tigers (6-5, 1-1 Big 12 Conference) had to have a win, if only to regain their confidence.

“We needed the win,” point guard Randy Pulley said. “That was the main thing, just get out of here with a W. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win.”

Neither team dominated, but Missouri was able to turn a strong second-half stretch into a victory. A 14-4 run, which strong interior play from seniors Travon Bryant and Arthur Johnson keyed, gave the Tigers momentum and, eventually, the win.

With the Tigers ahead 47-44 with 13:42 to play, Johnson made a turn-around jumper off a Bryant feed. Bryant scored the next possession from Pulley, who made his first start since joining Missouri on Dec. 21. A 3-pointer from freshman Thomas Gardner followed, again on a Pulley assist.

A Bryant jump hook, Rickey Paulding free throw, and four points from freshman Linas Kleiza gave the Tigers a 61-48 lead, their largest of the game.

Pulley finished with four points, four assists and three turnovers. His teammates said he brings a stabilizing influence to the team on the court.

“The guards are getting in the gaps and that gives us lanes to get in there and finish plays,” Bryant said. “We just have to finish … it was good to see Randy push the ball like he did tonight because you know you’re going to get (the ball) if you’re open.”

Johnson, Bryant, and Kleiza combined for 34 points and 25 rebounds, despite the two seniors being saddled with foul trouble. Johnson led all scorers and tied a season high with 19.

The Aggies (7-5, 0-1) held Missouri to two field goals in the final 5:45, a drought similar to one the Tigers experienced in a 70-65 loss at Iowa State on Wednesday when they scored one basket in the final 5:47. Texas A&M made the closing moments more dramatic than Missouri fans would have liked, drawing within 77-73 with 41.7 seconds left. The Tigers were able to make enough of their free throws (13-of-16 in the last five minutes) to hold on.

Missouri has struggled against zone defenses this season, and faced a mixture of man-to-man and zone looks. Adjusting to its opponent’s changing defensive strategies will be necessary for the consistency of the offense, coach Quin Snyder said.

“We’ve seen so many different defenses (trying) to prevent us from getting the ball inside, whether it’s a three-quarter court pressure, doubling the first pass on the wing, 1-3-1, 1-2-2, 2-3 zones…” Snyder said. “As much as you work against those things, you need to be able make the right read. The better that gets, the more we’ll be able to get the ball inside.”

Missouri held Texas A&M’s Antoine Wright, last season’s conference Freshman of the Year and the Aggies’ top scorer this season, to 5-of-17 shooting, including 1-of-8 in the first half. He was largely a nonfactor and finished with 12 points. Senior guard Kevin Turner led the Aggies with 14 points.

The Aggies, who had faced only one program from a power conference this season (at Tennessee, a 108-84 loss), were able to hang around until the end against the Tigers. Coach Melvin Watkins said he was satisfied with his team’s ability to slow down a more talented Missouri team.

“We knew they would make their run in the first half and we fought back in the second half and got back in the game,” Watkins said. “I didn’t think it got away; they just made some good plays and some critical baskets.”

A 14-5 run to end the first half kept the Aggies in the game. Missouri controlled most of the half, extending its lead to as many as eight points. Texas A&M found their shot from the outside late in the half, making three 3-pointers in the final 3:34.

Missouri moves into an imposing stretch of its schedule, including a home matchup with reigning national champions Syracuse on Monday, a road game at undefeated No. 6 Oklahoma on Saturday and a visit from No. 18 Texas three days later.

A few wins against those schools and the Tigers could be back on track. Saturday’s win was a step toward that.

“It’s good to win,” Bryant said. “But we know we can’t celebrate because we have the national champions coming in here.”

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