For the first time in a while, Missouri’s play allowed it an opportunity to relax and even crack a smile.
Stressful games and pressure-packed moments have characterized the Tigers’ season, but there was little tension for the Tigers in a 72-51 win against Nebraska on Saturday at Hearnes Center.
“I think our guys have put a lot of pressure on themselves and rightly so with the expectations they’ve had, as all of us have had, have been high,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said.
“It’s hard to play that way. You have to play the game and not think about if-then statements. You’ve got to be focused on what you’re doing. When you’re doing that, it’s fun even if it’s not always going your way. It’s fun to compete like that. It’s fun being in a battle.”
The Tigers, who have played 11 games decided by seven or fewer points, closed Saturday’s game with a 29-7 run, outscoring the Huskers 42-22 in the second half.
Senior guard Rickey Paulding scored a game-high 19, and freshman guard Thomas Gardner matched a career high with 17 points as the Tigers defeated Nebraska for the sixth straight time and ninth time in 10 games.
Although the Huskers led for the majority of the first half, the Tigers set the tone in the second half with their defense. Five forced turnovers on the Huskers first nine possessions allowed the Tigers to go on an 8-0 run, creating a 38-33 lead.
With 16:01 left, Gardner capped the run with a steal of Charles Richardson Jr. that he finished with a two-handed dunk.
“When we defend that way and get a lot of easy baskets, we haven’t got a lot of those, it has a really positive effect on your confidence and your psyche,” Snyder said. “The basket gets bigger, and the game gets a little easier when you’re able to get some buckets off your defense. That’s good to see.
“We always want to be forcing turnovers. As we’ve gotten better defensively, we’ve been able to get more aggressive and try to attack a little bit more, and that’s what you saw.’’
Gardner made another steal near the end of the first half. He stole the ball from Jake Muhleisen, shook away as Muhleisen tried to foul and made a tough fade-away jumper. This defensive play created momentum, which was carried into the second half, and got the crowd into it.
“We’re definitely doing it on the defensive end and playing together and getting the ball inside to AJ (Arthur Johnson) and Travon (Bryant) and our (big men),” Paulding said. “I think we’re happy where we’re at, and we’re just going to keep it going. We’ll find it a little bit now.”
After the Tigers’ burst to start the second half, the Huskers countered and retook the lead 44-43 when Brian Conklin made a 3-pointer with 9:33 left. Conklin’s basket would be their last for eight minutes.
Paulding, who has recently driven the ball to the basket with determination, regained the lead for the Tigers with a drive that resulted in a 3-point play with nine minutes left. He scored again on the next possession. Paulding then converted another Husker turnover into two free throws when Conklin intentionally fouled Paulding.
“I think he is, as our whole them is, focused offensively on attacking the rim,” Snyder said. “That is his primary focus whether it be by feeding the ball or driving the ball. I think his reads have been better. He’s not living and dieing with his jump shot. He’s making a lot of things happen.”
Paulding’s seven point spurt was only the beginning of the game-ending run, which grew to 29-2. The Tigers made 10-of-16 field goals on the run, including two 3-pointers and 7-of-7 free throws.
The run reached its highpoint when junior guard Jason Conley turned a steal into a dunk. The Tigers led 72-46 with 2:05 left.
Conley said should this type of defensive continue, the Tigers’ success level should increase.
“If we can get out and get those steals and run, that can kill a lot of teams,” Conley said. “That can break a lot of teams down. (Snyder) said since the beginning of the year if we play defense, we’ll win. That’s common sense, too. I think we showed it (Saturday). We showed it in a couple other games, but it’s good to see it recently.”
Using most of the shot clock and keeping the Tigers’ offense on the perimeter allowed the Huskers to dart to a 10-point lead on three occasions. With 11:20 left, the Huskers scored on 6-of-8 possessions. The 13-1 run, which ended with a Marcus Neal Jr. layup, pushed the lead to 18-8.
Nebraska took the lead with help from a poor offensive start from the Tigers as they made 3-of-17 field goals, but Paulding responded, having a role in the next three Tigers’ baskets. He made a driving jumper with 6:31 left, assisted on a Bryant dunk and hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key. The 3-pointer, which he made with four minutes left, brought the Tigers within 22-18.
“I didn’t think we had enough toughness, and I thought Missouri played aggressively,” Nebraska coach Barry Collier said. “That’s as aggressive as I’ve seen them play, and Quin said so when he spoke afterward.”