All Thomas Gardner needed was a little confidence.
He found it when he made the first start of his collegiate career against Iowa on Jan. 3. It carried to the next game, when he scored what was a season-high 17 points at Iowa State four days later.
His 20 points against UNLV on Sunday, including 18 in the first half, showed that Gardner has become a focal point for the Missouri offense. His 7-of-11 shooting, including 4-of-6 on 3-pointers, has turned Gardner from an unsure freshman to an aggressive team leader.
“Anybody can be a leader at a given time,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. “We’re getting more and more leadership from our seniors, too. The thing about leading is, you have to lead to the right place.”
The Tigers seemed to find that place in their drubbing of the Runnin’ Rebels. Missouri was unselfish with the ball, creating a season-high 25 assists on its 36 baskets. It also was more aggressive both offensively and defensively, sparked by an energy that Gardner has provided for much of the season. Gardner said Sunday’s game was different, though. “Tonight, I think, was the first game that collectively we played together with a lot of energy, not me leading them or them leading me,” Gardner said. “It’s good for us.”
After Missouri lost one of its better 3-point threats when senior guard Josh Kroenke cut his right leg in practice last week, Gardner has stepped up as the Tigers’ best shooter from the outside. He made three baskets in the first 12:29 of the first half, and then a fourth with 3:43 left to push Missouri to a 48-25 lead and force UNLV coach Charlie Spoonhour to take a timeout.
Senior guard Rickey Paulding said he is impressed with Gardner’s aggressive mind-set, particularly since Gardner is only 21 games into his collegiate career.
“You wouldn’t expect a freshman to have that much confidence,” Paulding said. “I know I didn’t have that much when I came in my freshman year. We needed him to step up and be the player he is now. He stepped up to the challenge and that’s all you can ask for.”
Gardner has also become the team’s most accurate free-throw shooter at 95.5 percent. After going 1-for-2 against Oakland in the season opener Nov. 29, Gardner has made the next 23. Gardner’s teammates noticed the streak and teased him about it in practice last week.
“We talked about it the other day, about how (Duke guard) J.J. Redick went 64 straight or whatever,” Gardner said. “They cracked a joke about how ‘Thomas went 18 straight!’”
PAULDING HELPS: After setting a career high with seven steals against Colorado on Tuesday, Paulding set a career best with nine assists against the Runnin’ Rebels. Paulding again struggled with his shot, scoring two points in the first half and finishing with 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting.
Against UNLV, Paulding said the rest of the team made up for his shooting struggles.
“I didn’t have to score tonight when Thomas had a great game, and Travon (Bryant), and (Arthur Johnson) and Jason (Conley),” Paulding said. “It was just one of those games when my shot wasn’t going in…but I can’t force up a bunch of shots. I’ve got to feed the hot hand.
“Those guys did a good job of making me look good.”
NOT-SO HAPPY RETURN: Spoonhour, who began his coaching career at Rocky Comfort High in southwest Missouri and spent nine seasons at Southwest Missouri State and seven at St. Louis University, returned to the state that reared him Sunday.
The visit did not go exactly as planned: Missouri dominated Spoonhour’s Runnin’ Rebels from the opening tip and made the coach’s return less than memorable.
“This is not one that I’ll cherish,” Spoonhour said. “I thought Missouri played well and we didn’t. That’s a terrible combination to have.”
RECRUIT VISITS: Tyler Hansbrough, a 6-foot-8 senior forward at Poplar Bluff High, attended the game and sat behind the Missouri bench.
The locker room was ready for his visit. A locker was prepared for him next to Gardner’s, including a No. 50 jersey.
The coaching staff readies the locker room for every recruit that visits, but Hansbrough, one of the most sought-after big men in the country, was a special visitor for the Tigers.
Hansbrough is considering Missouri, Florida and North Carolina, among others.
STREAK CONTINUES: When UNLV forward Romel Beck hit a 3-pointer with 17:35 left in the first half, the Runnin’ Rebels continued an NCAA record: UNLV has made a 3-pointer in every game since the shot was adopted for the 1986-87 season, a run of 560 games.
Vanderbilt is the only other school to make a 3-pointer in every game since the shot was introduced, 533 consecutive games.
The Runnin’ Rebels were 8-of-25 on 3-pointers on Sunday.