The game had the potential to destroy what had become a strong finish to Missouri’s inconsistent season.
It has been a long time since a defeat to Kansas State could be defined as a good loss, meaning the Tigers had to take advantage of a struggling Wildcats team Saturday in Manhattan. A loss would have ruined everything Missouri had gained by upsetting No. 6 Oklahoma State on Tuesday.
After 20 minutes, the Tigers appeared headed for that result. Missouri shot a woeful 35.5 percent in the first half and found itself down 35-28 at halftime.
With the season possibly hanging in the balance, the Tigers had two choices: pack it in and return to Columbia with a demoralizing loss or come out firing in the second half.
They chose the latter.
“We weren’t sharp again, but this time we got it together and I thought we finished the game very well,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said.
“Very well” might be an understatement. The Tigers made every big shot in the second half, hitting 64 percent from the field and scoring 51 points on their way to a 79-69 win. Snyder told his team to be more aggressive in the second half, hoping the Tigers would break through the Wildcats defense and find open looks from the outside.
They did. A highlight reel dunk by senior forward Rickey Paulding started the fun, and nine 3-pointers from Paulding, Jimmy McKinney, Travon Bryant and Jason Conley pushed the Tigers to a convincing road win.
“Some of them were pretty deep 3s as well,” Kansas State coach Jim Wooldridge said. “They shot it with a lot of confidence and they shot it incredibly well. … They gained the momentum and confidence and we couldn’t come back.”
The Tigers (15-10, 9-5 Big 12 Conference) have made a pattern of one strong half carrying them to a victory. Against UNLV on Feb. 15, the second victory of the Tigers’ six-game winning streak, they shot out to a 54-27 halftime advantage and cruised to a 34-point win. Three days later, they led by 12 at halftime against Iowa State and held on for an 82-70 win.
Missouri dominated the first 20 minutes against the Cowboys, scoring 50 points on its way to an 11-point halftime margin. That lead evaporated and became a 93-92 double-overtime win, but the Tigers have been able to turn it on and dominate games.
“I think it shows that we’re continuing to get better and we’ve stayed hungry,” Paulding said. “We know that each game is important; we couldn’t overlook this game, but we didn’t play well in the first half. We came together and were able to take a win out of here.”
Snyder continues to emphasize the Tigers’ defense as the spark that ignites the offense, suggesting that strong work on the defensive end boosts the confidence of his shooters.
“Good defense is something they’re beginning to really to take ownership in, along with the boards,” Snyder said. “(Defense) can pull you together and it’s the one thing you can control.”
Statistically, Missouri’s second-half defense Saturday was similar to its results in the first. The Wildcats shot 43 percent (down from 46 percent in the first half) and made half of their 3-pointers, identical to their first-half mark.
The Tigers, though, fought more aggressively, apparently realizing the importance of the game.
“We still have that fire, that flame that everyone wants to have,” Conley said. “We just have to keep doing it. This was a huge win for us on the road, but we’re still not satisfied.”
Conley has been a catalyst for Missouri recently, averaging 15.8 points in the past six games and developing into the game-breaking player he was expected to be when he transferred from Virginia Military Institute last season.
Conley’s game is similar to Missouri’s as a whole. If his shots are falling, he looks like one of the best players in the country. If they are not, he, and the rest of the Tigers, looks mediocre.
To continue their success as they enter the last week of the regular season, the Tigers must find a way to be more consistent.
“We’re playing better,” Snyder said. “I don’t want to get too excited about it, because we have two more regular season games and probably our toughest game of the year coming up at Texas Tech (on Wednesday)…
“Sometimes that improvement takes time to show, but (Saturday), particularly in the second half, you saw that.”