A double-digit margin of victory makes any coach smile.
After the Tigers beat Nebraska 72-51 on Saturday at Hearnes Center, Missouri coach Quin Snyder wasn’t only smiling because his team won a Big 12 Conference game so convincingly. He was admiring a defining moment in the Tigers season, bouncing back from Tuesday’s crushing overtime loss to Texas.
“I think we’ve been gaining that (confidence) over the last few weeks,” Snyder said. “The Texas game can knock you back. I think we played well (against the Longhorns), and I think we played well tonight.”
“When you play well, you should gain confidence. You go back to doing the things that make you successful. For us, that starts by really defending together as a team.”
Missouri, once ranked No. 3 in the nation, plummeted out of the rankings with a 3-6 skid. Before winning at then-11th-ranked Oklahoma on Jan. 17, the Tigers’ season almost collapsed.
In their last three games, though, they captured the cohesiveness missing from the first eight weeks of the season.
Chronic lapses in perimeter defense vexed the Tigers in their slump. Tigers’ opponents average 38.5 percent from behind the 3-point line. But the Tigers held a Nebraska squad that averages 42 percent in 3-point shooting to 4-of-18 from outside, and only one of those came in the second half.
Snyder said that formula serves his team best: solid defense equals effective offense.
“When our focus is there, the offensive stuff just comes a little easier,” Snyder said. “When you see the ball go in the basket, that helps. It gives you a lift; there’s no question about it. When you score, it’s easier to guard.”
The Tigers guarded the Cornhuskers as they hadn’t done all season, allowing a season-low 51 points.
Before Saturday’s convincing win against the Cornhuskers, the Tigers had only won one game by more than nine points. After beating Iowa 76-56 on Jan. 3, the Tigers faltered on the road against Iowa State.
Missouri senior Rickey Paulding is as confident about the rest of the Tigers’ year as he is cautious of complacency.
“We can’t lose focus. We can’t get comfortable,” Paulding said. “We’re in a situation where every win counts.”
Beating Nebraska with its most tenacious defensive effort of the year was more than a turning point in Missouri’s season. The sparks blazing the Tigers’ comeback define Missouri’s future.
When Paulding, who has the Tigers’ best scoring average, finished with a game-high 19 points, freshman Thomas Gardner, Paulding’s likely protégé, was right behind him with 17.
Gardner and Paulding teamed for 15 points in the Tigers’ first-half rally that brought them back from a 12-point deficit. Gardner emerged fiercely, stripping Nebraska’s Jake Muhleisen and swishing a jump shot as he fell that tied the game at 27 with 36 seconds left in the half. A Gardner 3-pointer at the buzzer sent the Tigers into halftime with a 30-29 lead.
“We had a lot of momentum, and that’s why we started that group in the second half,” Snyder said. “When you see guys out there doing it like that, when you come in the game, you can’t help but try to keep that level high.”
Fellow freshman Linas Kleiza added eight points and a game-high eight rebounds. Another rookie, Spencer Laurie, relentlessly pestered Nebraska’s offense, earning a block and a steal on back-to-back Nebraska possessions.
Paulding doesn’t expect Gardner, or any of the other rookies, to stay behind him for long, though.
“They’re probably a little bit better than we were as far as confidence and
just energy,” Paulding said. “I think (Arthur Johnson) was probably that way when he was a freshman, but I know myself, I didn’t have any confidence. I was nervous, and I didn’t shoot the ball as well as Linas and Thomas.
“They just bring that confidence and that energy and they just let it all go. They’re not afraid of anything.”
Their excitement doesn’t show up in their stats, but it made the freshmen’s play all the more crucial to a team with four seniors.
“We got really, really strong contributions from a lot of guys tonight, particularly the enthusiasm and the energy that our bench gave us,” Snyder said.
Duplicating that intensity for the next game isn’t an easy task for the Tigers, who travel to play Colorado on Wednesday.
Even though the freshman are emotional powerhouses for the Tigers, Paulding said it’s the seniors’ responsibility to help the team’s focus.
“Anybody can step up. Everybody knows where we’re at right now, and what we need to do as a team,” he said. “It can come from Spencer, it can come from Brian Dailey, it can come from anybody right now. For the most part, I think it will come from the seniors.”