For the last 30 seconds of Sunday’s win against UNLV, Missouri point guard Spencer Laurie brought the ball past half-court and dribbled out the clock.
Laurie didn’t flinch as he pounded the ball against the court and looked into the helpless, frustrated eyes of his opponent. Laurie and the Tigers ended Sunday’s 94-60 win with a feeling they haven’t felt all season: control.
The Tigers (11-10, 5-5 Big 12 Conference) needed a victory to hold their heads above .500, but guard Jimmy McKinney said this win was crucial for many other reasons.
“I just thought we needed a win, period, but this was a big win for us,” McKinney said. “We played a great team tonight, but we just played our ball game. We played like we’re supposed to play all year.”
After dominating the first half, the Tigers led 54-27 at the break, but they did something they haven’t done all season. When the Tigers returned after halftime, they didn’t relent.
They shared the ball uncharacteristically, getting a season-high 25 assists, forced turnovers and had 12 steals, the second-straight double-digit team total.
Missouri coach Quin Snyder said such a convincing victory, the widest margin since a 98-60 win against Sacramento State in December 2002, wasn’t what the Tigers were happiest about. Missouri’s defense and rebounding were the most pleasing. Snyder’s persistent staples were the focal point Sunday, he said.
“It’s something that we’ve been talking about all year,” Snyder said. “I feel like our team’s starting to take more ownership of that where it’s more of a focus when they’re out there on the floor. It showed out there tonight when we attacked the offensive glass in the first half.”
The Tigers didn’t control the rebounding margin in the first half; they owned it, grabbing more offensive rebounds (13) than the Rebels had overall (11). That stat showed up in their second-chance opportunities, and the Tigers scored 18 points from put-backs.
“When you defend, and when we were finishing plays and rebounding, you get some stuff in transition and the game gets a little easier,” Snyder said. “You get some easier baskets and guys are shooting the ball with more confidence. You get confidence from defending.”
Stepping out of the suffocating toughness of Big 12 competition, the Tigers played the second February nonconference game in the school history. With a little breathing room, the Tigers took a much-needed deep breath and earned their first back-to-back wins since opening 3-0.
With Iowa State coming to Hearnes Center on Wednesday night at 7, the Tigers have a chance to claim three straight games since that unblemished December record.
Snyder laid out a grueling nonconference schedule to test the Tigers early, but the results didn’t pan out quite like he expected. Instead of winning against seasoned teams such as Syracuse and Gonzaga and beating less talented teams such as Belmont, the Tigers’ disappointment mounted.
“We’re collectively getting better,” Snyder said. “It doesn’t always get reflected in result. We didn’t play well at Nebraska and got beat.
“We need to be a team that plays with emotion. That’s been evident this year for us, in some close games that we’ve lost or some performances that haven’t been up to par. That’s when we’ve got to be even more emotional and even tougher.”
It has been the same story all season for the Tigers.
One player has a star-studded game while his teammates fade into the background, and the Tigers narrowly win or fall short.
Snyder got standout performances from his entire team Sunday, whether it was senior Rickey Paulding’s career-high nine assists, junior Jason Conley’s five steals, senior Arthur Johnson’s season-best 23 points and freshman Thomas Gardner’s career-topping 20 or Kevin Young’s career mark of eight rebounds.
“I think it’s not been a lack of unselfishness as much as it’s been an inability to execute,” Snyder said. “We’re just getting a little more comfortable with each other, too, in terms of our chemistry.”
Snyder isn’t letting the Tigers get ahead of themselves. Winning against UNLV won’t erase all of the season’s close losses and letdowns, he said.
“There’s a lot of things that have contributed to that,” Snyder said. “You could look at our whole team and write a book, psychoanalyzing everything that we’ve been through. I don’t know if a clean slate, but it’s something we can build on. We’ve had a number of rebirths this year, whether it was Jan. 1 or Iowa or Oklahoma, where we’ve tasted it.”
“We’ve just got to keep improving. There’s a lot of things we can’t control; I think that there’s a lot of things you could point out that we can.”