With only four days to go until the Missouri men’s basketball team opens its regular season at home against Brown University, the Tigers were looking for one last preseason tuneup when they took on Northwest Missouri State at Paige Sports Arena on Wednesday.
All of the Tigers’ pistons appeared to be firing, but the timing leaves something to be desired.
Missouri defeated the Bearcats 90-60, thanks largely to the contributions of sophomore forward Linas Kleiza and sophomore guard Thomas Gardner.
“Those guys were just on,” MU coach Quin Snyder said. “The thing that I like about it is that I don’t remember a bad shot (by Kleiza or Gardner).”
Senior forward Jason Conley set the tone early when he let loose a bad 3-point shot on the first Missouri possession. The ball missed the rim entirely, but Kleiza jumped up and retrieved the shot for an easy layup off the backboard.
The Missouri offense looked shaky at times, but Kleiza, with 23 points and 9 rebounds, and Gardner, with 19 points, proved to be the steadying force the Tigers needed.
“I wouldn’t say I was totally feeling it,” Kleiza said. “I got hot a little bit. My teammates got me the ball at the right times, and I was able to make the right plays.”
After falling behind to start, the Bearcats went on a 13-4 run to lead the Tigers 19-18 with 11 minutes left in the first half.
It was the only lead Northwest Missouri State held all night, because Gardner was about to swing all the momentum the Tigers’ way.
Gardner received the ball in transition, drove the length of the court, and elevated over Bearcat guard Travis Gardner for a rim-shaking, two-handed dunk. The play took place at the basket nearest the student seating section at Paige Sports Arena, and the students responded with an eruption of cheers driving the Tigers’ offense into full gear.
“Thomas really got us going in the first half with his defense and that run out,” Snyder said. “That dunk was an emotional play. I thought that picked our whole level up.”
Gardner knocked down a 3-pointer on the subsequent possession and assisted a Jimmy McKinney 3-pointer on the Tigers’ next trip down the court. The 10-0 Missouri run with 8 minutes to play in the first half gave the Tigers the lead they would maintain the rest of the game.
“I think that’s just the emotion I bring to the court,” Gardner said. “That’s something I’ve just always been able to do. Not only can I get myself going individually, but I can get my team going.”
Before the Bearcat comeback, Missouri had jumped out to 13-2 advantage to start the game on the strength of 8 points from Kleiza in the first four minutes.
“I thought in the first half (Kleiza) was terrific offensively, but he wasn’t as disciplined defensively” Snyder said. “We need him to be an anchor for us defensively.”
The Tigers had bursts of offensive prowess, but the performance was not without its flaws.
Missouri turned the ball over 14 times and went long stretches without scoring.
With 10 minutes to go in the game, MU turned the ball over or failed to take good shots on four consecutive possessions. Freshman guard Jason Horton passed a ball out of bounds, Conley, freshman Glen Dandridge shot airballs and Kleiza was called for traveling.
Dandridge, the Tigers highly touted ‘pure shooter,’ went 1-of-5 from the floor, finally hitting a long 3-pointer as time expired.
“Everything is still so new, I guess I was just a little bit nervous,” Dandridge said. “It felt good to hit that last one. I just got my feet set and let it go.”
Snyder said his team has some work to do to be ready for the season, especially conference play.
“Our team has to understand that our identity has to start now,” Snyder said. “It’s not written it stone yet, but we’re chipping away at the stone. We’ve got a long way to go.”