For the first time all season, Arthur Johnson played like Arthur Johnson, and Rickey Paulding played like Rickey Paulding.
After tentative performances and inconsistent play in Missouri’s first 10 games, Johnson and Paulding showed why they are All-American candidates in the Tigers’ 82-77 victory against Texas A&M on Saturday at Hearnes Center.
Johnson had a game-high 19 points and 12 rebounds, and Paulding scored 16.
“I think earlier this year it was a combination of us trying to jell in and try to get some easier things for each other,” Paulding said. “Teams were really guarding us at the beginning of the year. With Linas (Kleiza) playing really well and Thomas (Gardner) coming off the bench, it’s kind of opened up. It’s kind of made it easier for me and AJ.”
Kleiza had seven points with nine rebounds, and Gardner had eight points.
Johnson and Paulding played together on the United States National Team at the Pan American Games during the summer, and both made the All-Big 12 Second Team last season.
Johnson, who at times has disappeared on the court because of opponents’ 2-3 zones and double teams, dominated the post, making 9-of-16 shots. Against the Aggies, Johnson, who said he hadn’t played as aggressively as he wanted in previous games, either made his move before the double team arrived or passed the ball to an open shooter when it did come.
“The way he finished around the rim, that’s what he is capable of,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. “I just thought he was determined on the offensive end.”
Snyder also he said he liked hearing Johnson’s voice on defense, something that provides energy and keeps his mind focused.
In the Tigers’ decisive 16-4 burst midway through the second half, Johnson scored five points, making 3-of-5 shots, and after one of the misses, Johnson forced an Aggie turnover. After the other miss, Johnson collected the rebound and dunked.
“We need AJ to play like that all the time for us to be successful,” Snyder said.
The success on offense transferred to defense as well. Johnson blocked two shots, including a crucial one to preserve the final score. With fewer than five seconds left, Antoine Wright drove the right baseline, but when he went up, Johnson sent the floating shot into the crowd. In addition, Johnson’s 12 rebounds ties a season high.
Snyder also said Johnson’s passion is infections and necessary for strong defensive efforts.
Entering the game, Johnson averaged 13.1 points but had also committed 23 turnovers. Against the Aggies, Johnson had two turnovers.
“Guys got the ball inside a little more,” Johnson said. “We played a pretty good game offensively (Saturday).”
Although Paulding has scored more points in four other games, he took the ball to the basket with determination for the first time. He hit on 4-of-10 shots but connected on 7-of-11 free throws.
On two occasions Paulding displayed the acrobatic athletic ability that attracted eight NBA scouts to the game. With 5:04 left in the first half, Paulding took a feed near the right wing, drove to the baseline, elevated, scored and drew a foul. Paulding’s second athletic dash to the rim occurred with 10:54 left. Paulding was fouled on the play and converted 1-of-2 free throws.
“I thought I had my drive (Saturday), and I just wanted to go to the basket,” Paulding said.
Snyder said he noticed the change in Paulding’s approach to offense.
“Rickey Paulding, no question, is a better player when he’s playing vertically to the rim,” Snyder said. “It doesn’t mean he doesn’t take his jump shot though. He’s got to shoot when he’s open.”
Paulding, though, has yet to find his touch with his jump shot most of the season. He is averaging 35 percent from the field.