Emotions ran high after Missouri defeated No. 16 Oklahoma 68-65 in overtime at Mizzou Arena on Saturday.
As fans rushed onto the court, sophomore forward Linas Kleiza peeled off his jersey and threw it into the air.
Missouri coach Quin Snyder and assistant Melvin Watkins grabbed Kleiza and shared an embrace.
Fitting then, that such an emotional win was made possible not only by Kleiza, but by the player Snyder has called the team’s emotional leader.
Sophomore guard Thomas Gardner had 18 points for Missouri, including the tying 3-pointer that sent the game into overtime and six of the Tigers’ nine overtime points.
“Our energy and our emotion is what we feed off of,” Gardner said. “It’s a gift we give each other. If my teammates give me everything they can, then I better do that right back. That’s how it was tonight. Nobody wanted to be the weakest link.”
Gardner gave his teammates his strongest 10 minutes of the season, right when Missouri needed them most. He shot 4-for-9 on 3-pointers for the day, with three of them coming in clutch situations.
With 1:43 left in regulation, Gardner received an outlet pass from senior Jason Conley. He drove the length of the court for a dunk, cutting the Oklahoma lead to three.
“It really doesn’t take much to get me going,” Gardner said. “If we get a big stop or a transition play, the offensive game starts coming easy for me.”
With 56 seconds left, Gardner hit the 3-pointer to tie. He received the ball with an open look at the basket.
Reserve guard Brain Dailey, on the Missouri bench, had his arms up in celebration before the ball even left Gardner’s hands.
And Gardner wasn’t finished. He hit 3-pointers on two consecutive possessions in overtime to ice the win for Missouri.
“Gardner is a clutch player,” freshman center Kalen Grimes said. “He can hit 3-pointers. If you leave him open, he’s going to hit them. I’m glad to have him as a part of my team because we need him.”
Gardner started in place of junior Jimmy McKinney, snapping McKinney’s streak of 79 consecutive starts going back to midway through his freshman year.
Snyder said it didn’t matter who started or who stepped up. He said the team was all that matters.
“At times this year all three of our (starting guards) have felt like they had to produce,” Snyder said. “We’re not good enough to think that way. We have to think as a unit. Thomas tried to do it against (Las) Vegas and tonight he did do it. But it wasn’t just him. Guys made plays to allow him to go out and do it.”
Gardner had 23 points in a loss to UNLV on Wednesday when he earned the start instead of Conley. Gardner went 4-for-12 from 3-point range in that game.
Gardner’s offensive contribution had been desperately lacking prior to the UNLV game. He had been averaging 9.2 points and shooting 35 percent from the floor.
“I am one of the leaders of this team,” Gardner said. “I have to play whatever role my team gives me. I have a duty to them. I haven’t been doing enough of that maybe.”
Gardner was 7-for-13 from the floor on Saturday.
“I was just playing mind free tonight,” Gardner said. “Once you get into the flow, something just happens. You just start knocking them down.”