He watched the same ugly first half the sellout crowd at Hearnes Center watched Saturday evening. He felt the Nebraska players tugging at his jerseys, and he never heard a whistle. He saw the ‘Huskers go up a point in the second half.
None of it was too much for Gardner, even in only his 15th collegiate game.
And as Missouri started to take out the ‘Huskers with a huge second-half run, the Tiger veterans, the guys that had been there so many times, were looking straight to Gardner for energy, and he surely had enough of it to go around. It was enough to catapult the Tigers to the kind of win the Missouri fans had been waiting for for quite some time, a 72-51 victory to push Missouri to 8-7 and 3-2 in the Big 12.
"I just go out there and try to play," Gardner said. "Is it the energy or emotion? I don't know, I just think if I go out there and get a couple of steals and get a couple dunks and get myself going, then I think the team will get going."
Gardner tied a career-high with 17 points in only 21 minutes, and he had the kind of big plays that got Missouri going at the end of the first half and then catapulted a 29-2 run in the second half to put away Nebraska.
"(Gardner's) not thinking about a whole lot other than winning," Missouri coach Quin Snyder said.
It was also another great game for Rickey Paulding, who led the team with 19 points. It was his sixth straight game of 15 or more points, and he said the secret hasn't been rocket science.
"It's driving to the basket," Paulding said. "Everyone's been telling me at home to just drive to the basket. I guess one day a light clicked and I just kept driving to the basket. That's been the difference."
From the look of the hideous first half, few could have thought it could have ended so pretty for the Tigers. Missouri missed three of its first 17 shots, with the offense struggling to get any kind of rhythm going. And soon enough, the Tigers found themselves down 20-10. Not too much later, Gardner got them going.
"Thomas is just instant energy," Paulding said.
Gardner hit a 3-pointer to make it 24-21, and then with 40 seconds left in the half, he turned a steal into a breakaway. Even with a Nebraska player tugging at his jersey, he went down and hit a falling-down jumper to tie it at 27. After a Nebraska basket, he came back with a 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds left to put Missouri ahead 30-29 at the half.
"I thought we had a lot of momentum, and that's why we started that way the second half," Snyder said. "When you see guys out there doing it like that, when you come in the game, you can't help but keep that level high."
Missouri jumped ahead 43-36 in the second half, but Nebraska responded with a run of its own, and Brian Conklin's 3-pointer put the ‘Huskers ahead 44-43 with 9:32 left. From there, Gardner and Paulding combined for the next 10 points, and Missouri continued to pour it on for a run that put them ahead 72-46.
With each rebound, each 3-pointer, each fastbreak dunk, Gardner's hands would be flying in the air to lead on the fans
"It's just Thomas," guard Jimmy McKinney said. "That's Thomas as a player, that's Thomas basically as a person. It's not surprising at all because he does it in practice, and he's always done it since he's been here. It's no surprise at all."
With 2:30 left, the same fans that had booed the Tigers in the terrible first 10 minutes were giving them a standing ovation. As much as Gardner wanted to be truly disappointed by the crowd's bandwagon mentality, he couldn't help but face the honest truth.
"We want the crowd to be with us all game, and for them to go off and on…," he said. "It's kind of how our team's been playing, so we can't really fault the crowd."