DALLAS — Missouri was in a giving mood Thursday night.
No, the Tigers were not willing to give Texas A&M its first Big 12 Conference win this season. Nor were they willing to give the Aggies their first win in the Big 12 Tournament, though the final margin was tighter than the Tigers might have hoped. A tight Aggie zone defense and aggressive trapping brought the Tigers another scare.
“We just kept our poise,” junior guard Jason Conley said. “They didn’t seem like they didn’t win any conference games this year.”
After passing out 11 assists in Sunday’s Hearnes Center-closing loss to Kansas, the Tigers equaled that number by halftime in their 74-68 win against Texas A&M in the first round game. They finished with 18 assists, tying for the most the Tigers had since a Feb. 15 win against UNLV.
The Tigers also had 17 turnovers, giving the Aggies 17 points.
Missouri players earned assists on 11 of the Tigers’ 16 first-half baskets, including one stretch midway through the period when senior forward Rickey Paulding assisted on three consecutive baskets.
Paulding opened the game with a 3-pointer and closed the first half with a layup. What he did between was more significant. Paulding had four assists in the first half, including three on consecutive Missouri possessions to key a 12-4 run that turned a 20-11 Texas A&M lead into a 24-23 Missouri advantage.
Paulding excelled at getting the ball to Missouri’s big men in the right place and at the right time, a problem that has plagued the Tigers all season. Paulding found senior forward Travon Bryant on the baseline, and Bryant floated in a layup to cut the margin to 20-13 with 11:50 left.
Paulding found Bryant again the next time down the floor, but Bryant earned a trip to the free-throw line after converting this time. He hit from the line to cut the lead to four.
Paulding found the Tigers’ other senior big man to finish the quick run, feeding center Arthur Johnson, who scored a layup with 10:34 left in the half to cut the lead to 20-18.
Paulding finished with nine points, but his five assists helped spark the offense.
“I have to contribute other ways when it’s not going good for me offensively,” Paulding said. “That was the case for me tonight.”
Johnson, Missouri’s all-time leading rebounder and blocker, also showed he could contribute in other ways. To go with his 14 points, he added three assists in the first half and finished with five.
His biggest setup came in the second half with the Tigers (16-12) holding a 55-54 lead. Johnson flashed to the middle of Texas A&M’s 2-3 zone, caught the ball at the free-throw line and found Conley open on the right wing. Conley hit a 3-pointer, pushing the Tigers to a 58-54 lead with 5:45 to play.
Sophomore guard Jimmy McKinney found Conley again on the next possession and the Tigers pushed to a 62-54 lead, their largest of the game, after another 3-pointer.
Despite the close win, Missouri coach Quin Snyder seemed pleased with his offense, except for one aspect.
“I think we were pretty efficient, with the exception of turnovers,” Snyder said. “We just gave up a lot of possessions tonight on the glass, but I think we’ve become a better passing team.
“You like to see your guys passing the ball like that.”
Missouri committed turnovers on back-to-back possessions late in the second half, allowing Texas A&M to cut into the Tigers’ lead. After Bryant was whistled for a five-second violation after being unable to inbound the ball in time, Texas A&M guard Leandro Garcia-Morales scored on a layup on the following possession to cut Missouri’s lead to 62-58 with 3:58 left.
Missouri was able to inbound the ball on the next possession, but turned it over again when Conley barreled over Garcia-Morales and was issued a charge.
Fortunately for the Tigers, the Aggies (7-21) didn’t convert on their possession, while McKinney scored a 3-pointer to push the lead back to seven with 3:34 left.
Missouri must continue one trend and end another to fare well in their third meeting with the Jayhawks this season, today in the second round of the tournament. The Tigers will be unable to advance if they give the ball to the Jayhawks as often as they did Thursday, and another 11-assist effort, like Sunday’s, could bring a loss as well.
“There’s no way we can turn the ball over that much against them,” Conley said. “We’re going to take care of it.
“There’s a lot of changes we need to make for the next game and we know what we need to do to win.”