Give the assist to the 14,675 Tiger fans who jammed Mizzou Arena on Thursday night.
The largest crowd MU has drawn this season not only witnessed the Tigers’ 63-61 upset of No. 12 Gonzaga, it played a role in the victory.
“When we came out for warm-ups, I looked up and I was amazed,” senior guard Jason Conley said. “I don’t think we ever filled up like that before, and as the game went on I looked up and I didn’t see a seat. My God, it was incredible.”
Before Thursday, attendance at Mizzou Arena had not exceeded 12,000.
With 8.4 seconds left, Gonzaga forward Ronny Turiaf, shooting 77 percent on free throws this season, stepped to the foul line with an eye to erase the 2-point Missouri lead. The MU student section, which was full for the first time this year, was behind the basket.
Mizzou Arena rolled with a noise not yet heard in the Tigers’ new home. Turiaf succumbed to the distraction, missing both free throws and allowing Missouri to hang on to the lead.
“The crowd played a huge role in our win tonight,” freshman forward Marshall Brown said. “It definitely had a huge influence when Turiaf was at the line at the end and he missed those free throws. They were loud. They were into it, and that got us pumped.”
The missed free throws negated a sorry finish by the Missouri offense, which stalled for the last eight minutes.
“I thought we started standing,” MU coach Quin Snyder said. “I thought we got a little tired. Sometimes, when we see a zone we have a tendency to stand and not cut as well. We were still trying to attack inside, but we weren’t getting the ball on the post.”
Missouri led by as many as 10, 61-51 with 8:27 left. The Tigers failed to score a field goal for the rest of the game.
Early on it looked as if Missouri’s offense was heating up. Except for the final drought, the Tigers shot 52 percent for the game.
Conley led the Tiger offense with 16 points and 13 rebounds.
He put offensive rebounds back for baskets on three consecutive Missouri possessions in the second half, including a play with 12:29 left in which he pulled down his own rebound after a missed jump shot and dunked over Gonzaga guard Enroll Knight.
The Tigers seized control early, looking toward the basket and in the direction of sophomore forward Linas Kleiza.
Kleiza scored Missouri’s first six points, all on post layups. Junior center Kevin Young added a basket from the lane to give the Tiger’s an 8-2 lead with 17:16 left in the half.
Kleiza finished with 11 points, fouling out with 3:29 left in the game.
The Bulldogs reacted to Missouri’s post game, switching to a match-up zone defense in an attempt to contain Missouri’s big men. The zone foiled the Tigers attempts to isolate Kleiza in the post, but the change opened the game up for Missouri’s guards.
Freshman guard Jason Horton knocked down a 3-pointer with 14:56 in the half, and sophomore guard Thomas Gardner hooked up with Conley on a lob pass that Conley took for an alley-oop dunk with 9:10 left.
Snyder said the win could save a Tigers season that looked in jeopardy.
“We showed ourselves that we can,” Snyder said. “Sometimes you do something, and if you do it consistently, it becomes who you are. When we talk about who we are, that’s about an identity. This is a pretty good step toward that identity.
“Now we have to do it again. That’s the challenge, that consistency with young players, but for them to taste it and have success doing it is a big help.”