WACO, Texas – There won’t be any election, but Missouri guard Jason Conley is running a campaign for a starting position in the Tigers’ lineup.
In the Tigers’ 70-66 win against Baylor, Conley drummed up support among his teammates, leading the Tigers’ offense with a game-high 24 points.
“Jason Conley really came up big at a time when we really needed some punch offensively,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. “He played his tail off.”
When the Bears jumped to an improbable 14-7 lead early in the first half, the Tigers found their go-to guy.
Seniors Arthur Johnson and Rickey Paulding, preseason picks for the All-Big 12 Conference team, pulled in their requisite share, but Conley’s play was indispensable.
Conley hit two 3-pointers, and Paulding used his trademark driving-and-slashing as they pieced together a 17-4 Tiger surge.
“Jason played a great game for us in the first half,” Johnson said. “He kept us in the game.”
Johnson, who sat for most of the first half with three early fouls, said Conley’s defense sparked the Tigers’ small, four-guard lineup.
“When we see Coop on the ball defensively we know we need to step our game up and play harder,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of faith in each other, so if a guy gets beat, we’re going to help each other out the best we can.”
Conley fired two more 3s in the second half when the Tigers’ lead slipped again.
With efficient 10-of-14 field-goal shooting, Conley calmly orchestrated the Tigers’ offense while it kept a few steps ahead of the Bears toward the end of the second half.
“I was positive, and it’s all coming out now,” Conley said.
Conley, the first freshman to lead the nation in scoring when he was at Virginia Military Institute, scored his most points as a Tiger, but Saturday’s game was momentous for him because the Tigers have won four straight for the first time.
“It was the biggest game of the year,” Conley said. “That’s how you have to see every game we’re about to play: it’s the biggest game of the year for us. We haven’t done that all year, and that’s what I’m happy with.”
Missouri’s bench outscored the Bears’ bench 27-18, but sophomore forward Kevin Young’s three free throws were the only points in that total other than Conley’s.
Conley’s 31 minutes were a season-high, but he started the game sitting on the bench. He came in at the 15:20 mark in the first half and didn’t sit again for the rest of the half.
“It doesn’t matter who starts a game or who finishes, as long as you play the game to the best of your ability and help your team get the win,” Johnson said. “To come in with that kind of energy, he just showed how good of a player he’s been coming on in the last couple of games. He’s a big part of this team.”
After missing the first four games of the season because of NCAA transfer rules, Conley’s struggles in January hinted that he might have been branded with a misleading scoring title.
When February’s urgency seized the struggling Tigers, Conley moved from the end of the bench to first-man-in with consecutive 12-point games against Nebraska and Colorado.
“Getting knocked back, you can either quit or get more determined,” Snyder said. “Jason got more determined.”
Conley’s canvass started with all-around tenacity against UNLV on Feb. 15.
Conley had seven assists, five steals and eight rebounds with 17 points, but Paulding said the Tigers knew from practice there was much more to Conley’s game than shooting.
“We learned a long time ago that he wasn’t a mad gunner,” Paulding said.
He proved the outbreak against UNLV legit, backing it with another double-digit scoring effort against Iowa State on Wednesday, teaming 14 points with six rebounds.
Tuesday’s matchup with No. 7 Oklahoma State could be the best time for Conley’s promotion, but when it’s time for tip-off, Snyder’s vote is the one that counts.
“When you come off the bench, it doesn’t matter to me if I start,” Conley said. “I have full confidence in the coaching staff and what they think I should do. I just want to play and help us win.”
SCORING RUSH: Johnson’s emphatic first-half dunk at the 11:37 mark ended a 10-0 Bears run. It moved the Tigers within 14-9, and it moved him up in the school’s career scoring list. His basket tied him with Kareem Rush at ninth.
Johnson’s nine points against the Bears gave him 1,589 to put him in ninth place on MU’s list. He is eight behind Jon Sundvold.
DREW: After scandal surrounding Baylor guard Patrick Dennehy’s death forced out former coach Dave Bliss, Scott Drew left his Valparaiso team to rebuild the Bears’ shaken program.
Fellow Big 12 Conference coaches are mentioning his name early for conference Coach of the Year honors after the Bears’ upsets of Texas A&M and Iowa State.
After his squad clawed its way out of Waco, Snyder credited Drew’s work for the improvement.
“All the kids tonight showed great character,” Snyder said. “Scott Drew has done a great job with these guys. They’ve improved, and you can see it from their tapes, and the season and the last couple of games. They played like a confident team.”