When the basketball reached Kevin Young’s hands his eyes got as big as a child’s on Christmas morning.
Who could blame him, it’s not too often a 6-foot-9, 263-pound center gets to lead a fast break.
Intercepting Nebraska guard Jake Muhleisen’s pass near half court, Young had less than 40 feet to Missouri’s basket and nobody in front of him.
The prospects of Young finishing the play with a rim-rattling dunk brought the Missouri fans to their feet in eager expectation.
But Nebraska’s Joe McCray foiled the plot, running in from behind and fouling Young hard as Young went up for a dunk. The referees whistled an intentional foul, and Young went to the line for two free throws.
“That’s a big man’s dream to steal the ball and run down the floor,” Young said. “But I guess the little guy was quick and caught me back.”
Young’s play on the defensive end signified the Tigers’ commitment to return to what carried them prior to their three-game Big 12 Conference losing streak.
Missouri beat Nebraska 80-70 on Saturday at Mizzou Arena.
After Missouri’s 78-62 loss to Texas Tech on Wednesday, a 20-point loss to Kansas State and a 10-point loss to Oklahoma State before that, the players unanimously agreed their defensive effort was to blame.
“We can play better defense than we showed in the last two games,” junior guard Jimmy McKinney said after the Texas Tech game. “I know that, the people in this locker room know that, and my teammates and the staff know that. But we’re just not showing it.”
Missouri coach Quin Snyder agreed with McKinney’s assessment.
“I tried to remind them after Tech that a couple weeks ago we were a decent basketball team,” Snyder said. “I don’t know if we were that good, but we were at least getting better. We tried to go back to some of those things.”
Snyder said one of those things was stronger team defense, which showed in the second half against Nebraska.
After his steal, Young made 1-of-2 free throws, capping an 18-5 run midway through the second half. The Tigers (10-8, 2-3) held the Cornhuskers (8-7, 2-3) without a field goal for more than four minutes during that stretch.
“I thought we really defended well in the second half,” Snyder said. “We were able to get in that mindset, and that for us is essential. We’re a team that needs to start there on the defensive end.”
Young, who finished with three steals and three rebounds, did a particularly good job of limiting Nebraska’s John Turek, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound forward.
Turek came into the game averaging 9.1 points and 4.7 rebounds, but he finished with two points and two rebounds.
“I kind of affected Turek a little,” Young said. “He was frustrated earlier in the game so I just tried to use it against him, and the guys coming off the bench did the same thing. Marshall Brown and Kalen Grimes played great defense, too.”
McKinney said he felt the urgency in the locker room before the game.
“Guys were ready, guys were focused and guys were pumped to play,” McKinney said. “We just got to make sure we have that every game.”
Linas Kleiza, who scored a career-high 31 points, said Saturday’s win was crucial.
“We needed this game bad, to get our confidence back and to get back in the hunt in the Big 12,” Kleiza said.