Missouri’s game against Nebraska on Saturday at Hearnes Center seemed to be a typical Big 12 Conference game. It was the teams’ first meeting this season and though the schools are in the North Division, the emotion of the rivalry that exists in football has not recently carried over to the basketball court.
For freshman guard Thomas Gardner, though, the game could not come soon enough.
“Last night I was thinking, ‘I can’t wait for the game to come,’” Gardner said. “I had some unbelievable energy and I was ready to play.”
Gardner turned that energy into 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting, five rebounds and two assists. He played 21 minutes of the Tigers’ 72-51 win. Gardner was Missouri’s only outside threat; his 3-of-5 shooting accounted for half of the Tigers’ 3-pointers.
Gardner contributed five points to Missouri’s 27-2 second-half run, including one of the biggest baskets. After Missouri swingman Rickey Paulding drew an intentional foul on a fast break and made both free throws, Gardner hit a 3-pointer from the right wing to put Missouri ahead 53-44 with 7:12 to play. The Cornhuskers appeared unsure after that five-point possession, allowing the Tigers to score 17 of the next 19 points.
Gardner said the boost he brings from the bench, especially defensively, makes his impact on the game greater.
“At times, I felt we weren’t playing with energy because we weren’t scoring,” Gardner said. “When I came in, I was trying to get the team going by making some stops and forcing my guy into turnovers.”
Gardner often served as an on-court cheerleader, repeatedly pumping his arms in the air to encourage the sell-out crowd of 13,611 during the Tigers’ big run.
“I think I play better when I have a lot of emotion and when the crowd is getting into it,” Gardner said. “(The game is) a lot easier when your team is playing with a lot of emotion. It makes it so much easier to go out there and do your best.”
Missouri coach Quin Snyder said Gardner’s emotion brings the Tigers into focus on the defensive end.
“Thomas’ emotion is big,” Snyder said. “We all have to be that way … it throws you into the game at a high level and it’s a necessity for your defense.”
Gardner’s 17 points more than quadrupled his season average of 4.1 points. The output tied his season high, which he set at Iowa State on Jan. 7.
After averaging 9.1 minutes his first 10 games, his effort against the Cyclones earned Gardner more playing time, averaging 19.6 in Missouri’s past five games. Gardner said he was unsure of his place on the team early in the season, but has found it now.
“Now I know my role is to bring energy night in and night out,” he said.
Nebraska coach Barry Collier praised Gardner’s ability to find the open shot and make it. Collier said the Cornhuskers did not put forth the effort to slow Gardner and Paulding down.
Gardner, though, said he was not surprised with his final stat line.
“Like I said, I was ready,” he said.
SOME IMPROVEMENT AND MORE STRUGGLES: After making 15-of-24 free throws in the second half and overtime of Tuesday’s 75-69 loss to Texas, the Tigers found their stroke, making 16-of-18 attempts.
Paulding’s 6-of-6 mark was a notable improvement over his 6-of-12 effort against the Longhorns. He said the team’s improving defense has led to better shooting.
“I think we’re just being focused on the defensive end and then it’s easier on the offensive end to make tough shots and get to the free throw line,” he said.
Missouri’s 3-point shooting was again lacking. The Tigers shot 6-of-23 against the Cornhuskers to follow a 2-of-15 effort against the Longhorns. The Cornhuskers also struggled from the outside, shooting 4-of-18.
The Tigers entered Saturday’s game seventh in the conference in 3-point shooting and last in 3-point defense. Missouri is making 32.7 percent of its 3-pointers and allows opponents to make 37.5 percent of their attempts.
BANNERS COME DOWN: Five of the six retired numbers that hang in Hearnes Center were lowered at halftime.
Bill Stauffer’s No. 43, Willie Smith’s No. 30, Jon Sundvold’s No. 20, Steve Stipanovich’s No. 40 and Doug Smith’s No. 34 were brought down and prepared to move to the team’s new arena, which opens next season.
Stauffer was the only player unable to return for the ceremony because of a prior commitment. Norm Stewart’s No. 22 will be brought down at halftime against Iowa State on Feb. 18.
Retiring MU Chancellor Richard Wallace also was honored at halftime, presented with a letter jacket from six Missouri coaches, including football coach Gary Pinkel.