If one person is thankful Missouri freshman Spencer Laurie chose not to redshirt his first year as a Tiger, it’s Tigers’ sophomore Jimmy McKinney.
After all, if Laurie hadn’t been there to lighten his load when the Missouri basketball team stormed through Nebraska 72-51 on Saturday, it would have been a long day for McKinney.
“It makes me happy a lot, just seeing Spencer out there playing,” McKinney said.
With Randy Pulley, the Tigers’ starting point guard, sidelined with a jammed left thumb, McKinney and Laurie split time controlling the ball. Running the offense is only part of a point guard’s job, though, and Missouri coach Quin Snyder said their defensive effort was most important to the Tigers during a 12-point comeback run in the first half.
Laurie, who was averaging little more than 8 minutes per game before Saturday, played 19 minutes against the Cornhuskers. Despite not scoring any points, he finished the game with one assist, a steal and a block.
Laurie said he is enjoying every minute of the learning experience.
“The more you play the more comfortable you’re going to be. It’s natural to you,” Laurie said. “Getting the chance to go out there and play helps a lot.”
Early in the second half, Laurie, 6 feet 1, earned a career-first block not many people expected. Guarding the Cornhuskers’ 5-foot-8 Charles Richardson, Jr., gave Laurie a rare height advantage.
“In high school the guys were smaller so I got to block a few, but that was my first one in college definitely,” he said.
On the next defensive stand, Laurie stripped Richardson again.
“Spencer came in and did a really good job and Jimmy also, in the second half in particular, got after it and competed,” Snyder said. “We have to have five guys competing all the time.”
When the Cornhuskers slowed their offensive pace, the Tigers kept a competitive tempo with their defense.
“We figured we needed to get out there and shake things up a little bit because they were trying to slow the game down,” Laurie said. “We always talk about getting out there and raising the intensity on defense, and I think getting out there definitely helped that.”
Having a three-man rotation for the point guard spot doesn’t faze Laurie’s intensity, he said. With Pulley and McKinney splitting the time at point, too, Laurie said the three of them have better odds at maintaining their poise.
“You come in the game, and you’re fresh,” Laurie said. “You’re able to get after people a lot more. If you’re playing the entire time, it’s hard to keep that intensity up.”
A few years ago, McKinney wouldn’t have felt so good about watching Laurie get comfortable in a game.
When McKinney was a senior, he starred for Vashon High in St. Louis while Laurie, then a junior, controlled the ball for Kickapoo. Both honored as Mr. Show-Me Basketball, McKinney and Laurie feed off each other, McKinney said.
Before college, we had some, you know, back-and-forth words,” McKinney said with a smirk. “I’ve known Spence since before we got here, so it’s good to see him on my team now. I’ve always been on the opposite team as him, but it feels real good to see Spence out there playing.”
Snyder didn’t let Pulley’s sore thumb excuse his lack of playing time. He said Laurie’s and McKinney’s efforts earned them a spot on the floor Saturday.
“He’s a little banged up, but we’re looking for guys that are playing,” Snyder said. “The lineup has changed a lot. Give our guys credit. People have been in and out, and that’s hard as a player. Everybody’s really put the team first.”
A true-point guard, Pulley’s pass-first strategy and expertise controlling the helm keeps the Tigers from getting tentative on offense, but his poor shooting might be giving opponents a defensive break as they drop inside to double-team Missouri’s big men.
Pulley, who only played two minutes on Saturday, said his thumb injury won’t hold him back when the Tigers play Colorado on Wednesday.
“It wasn’t feeling too well, but the team played well so that’s all that counts,” Pulley said. “When I get on the court, I have to make the best difference I can. It’s not affecting me.”
Even though Pulley could only watch from the sideline, he was happy with what he saw from his substitutes.
“They played probably their best games this year,” Pulley said. “We needed that.”
Switching from point guard to his natural shooting guard position has taken some getting used to, McKinney said, but the ever-shifting lineup isn’t hindering his adjustment.
“It’s never hard when you’re winning,” McKinney said. “Things come easier, things come better, when you’re winning.”
McKinney played 23 minutes against the Cornhuskers and had eight points and four rebounds. Although he struggled with turnovers early in season, McKinney didn’t fumble once Saturday, and he counted two assists.
Defense was the spark for McKinney, too. He counted a career-high two blocks.
“Once I got back in the game, I felt good, and I just wanted to play as hard as they played,” McKinney said. “It feels good to sometimes sit on the bench and see other guys give all their all.”