Thomas Gardner is so confident in his shot that having 10 healthy fingers is unnecessary.
After driving to the basket and colliding with Kansas State forward Justin Williams in the first half Saturday, Gardner flipped the ball into the basket and drew the foul. He also jammed the ring finger on his left, nonshooting hand, and dislocated it.
Gardner shook off the pain, converting the foul shot to extend Missouri’s lead.
“I don’t really like to be injured,” Gardner said. “So I just wanted to make my free throw and get out of the game.”
Gardner again sparked the Missouri offense in the Tigers’ 62-53 win in a sloppy Big 12 Conference game against the Wildcats at Hearnes Center. Despite Gardner’s freshman standing and relative Big 12 inexperience, his 16 points, six rebounds and ability to hit the outside shot (3-of-6 against the Wildcats) overcame a lackluster shooting game for the Tigers.
Missouri’s 41.5 percent shooting, including 31.8 percent on 3-pointers, was strong compared with Kansas State’s 34.7 percent effort. The teams combined for 31 turnovers and 43 fouls.
It was an ugly game, but any win is beautiful for the Tigers (9-8, 4-3 Big 12).
“It was a gutsy effort on behalf of our kids,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said.
Snyder has repeatedly emphasized Gardner’s ability to change the game on defense. The team’s best on-ball defender, Gardner struggled against Colorado’s Michel Morandais on Wednesday, giving up a game-high 28 points in the Tigers’ 83-70 loss. He was more consistent against the Wildcats and converted that energy into points.
“More than anything, he’s just competitive,” Snyder said. “The emotion he shows, he’s a catalyst in that respect.”
He is rapidly becoming much more, including the Tigers’ top 3-point threat. Senior swingman Rickey Paulding struggled to a 1-of-8 effort against the Wildcats, making Gardner the only option.
He cashed in.
“I don’t really see (mine) as big shots,” Gardner said. “Every shot we make is a big shot for our team. I just come in to work, hustle on defense and get the crowd into the game and get my team going and the bench going. That makes the shots easier.”
Partly because of Kansas State’s weak offense, which was 10th in the conference in scoring average entering the game, Missouri played one of its stronger games of the season defensively. The Tigers used a 2-3 zone for much of the contest, forcing the Wildcats to fight through it to get to the basket. Often unable to do that, they went almost nine minutes with one field goal in the first half and more than seven minutes without a basket in the second.
“Gardner made some timely 3-point shots in the second half,” Kansas State coach Jim Wooldridge said. “Coupled with our inability to score the ball during that segment of the game … I thought we did a good job in some areas, but we weren’t able to score the ball. We just didn’t have enough offense to catch up or go ahead.”
Missouri struggled against a 2-3 zone early in the second half, allowing the Wildcats to tie the game at 34 on guard Cartier Martin’s floater at 13:20. The Tigers responded with accuracy from the outside; guards Josh Kroenke and Jason Conley hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to push Missouri’s lead back to six. The basket was Conley’s second in seven games and his first 3-pointer since his Missouri debut against UNC-Greensboro on Dec. 21.
Five points, on two free throws and a 3-pointer from Gardner, extended the Missouri lead to 45-35 with 8:20 left. That completed an 11-1 run after the Wildcats tied the game.
Both teams struggled from the field in the first half, forcing Missouri to rely on an inaccurate outside shot. The Tigers converted 1-of-11 3-pointers in the first half, allowing a Jarrett Hart jumper at the buzzer to cut Missouri’s lead to 27-25 at halftime.
Hart led Kansas State (9-8, 1-5) with a career-high 20 points.
Snyder said his team’s willingness to settle for an early shot limited it offensively in the first half.
“I thought we quick-shot a lot in the first half,” he said. “We got better looks in the second half and that took pressure off individuals. When guys are sharing the ball, the basket looks a little bigger when you’re shooting.”
McKinney said the team was able to maintain an aggressive defense against the Wildcats, an attitude the team must maintain to be successful.
“We just have to stay aggressive,” McKinney said. “We can’t have a lot of mental breakdowns and let teams get on big runs.
“If we can get (opponents) to turn the ball over or limit them to one shot, we’ll be great.”