Three months and 21 games ago, Missouri was supposed to be the kind of team that blows opponents out of its home gym. Back in November, Arthur Johnson was set to be a force down low that no one could contend with. Before this tumultuous season began, Jason Conley was expected to be a big addition to an already talent-loaded team.
On Sunday at Hearnes Center, in a nonconference game that seemingly didn't matter except for NCAA Tournament reasons, it all came together. Missouri played like the team everyone has expected in a 94-60 win against UNLV.
"I was like, ‘Why couldn't we have this earlier in the year?'" forward Travon Bryant said. "But I mean, it was better late than never."
Missouri (11-10), which had been ranked as high as No. 3 at the beginning of the season, won two in a row for the first time since December, and it had its biggest margin of victory this season by 13 points.
"It's not just the win, it's how we won," Conley said. "We didn't just win by a point or two, we gave it to them. That gives our team a lot of confidence."
And Missouri gave it to them all afternoon long. After trailing 8-4 early to the Rebels, the Tigers launched a run that included scoring on 13 straight possessions, and Missouri ran UNLV out of the gym from there.
Thomas Gardner had 18 of his 20 points in the first half, making 4-of-5 3-pointers. He and Johnson, who had 16 of his 23 in the first half, led Missouri to a 54-27 lead at the half.
Conley came in midway through the half, and when point guards Jimmy McKinney and Spencer Laurie got in foul trouble, Conley took over with plenty of success. Missouri coach Quin Snyder said Conley's five points and five rebounds off the bench were more than a match to light the Tigers' run.
"He was a blowtorch," Snyder said. "I think he really is good in transition. He's really good in the open floor."
Missouri simply bullied the smaller Rebels around, with more offensive rebounds in the first half, 13, than UNLV had total rebounds, 11. Missouri had 18 second-chance points and 30 points in the paint in the half. The Tigers finished with a 43-28 rebounding advantage.
In the second half, Missouri kept its momentum going, and Conley punctuated Missouri's big lead when he dived out of bounds and fired a pass to Gardner for a fast-break dunk. Conley finished with 17 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and five steals.
"Jason threw that pass about 18 feet cross-court left-handed," Snyder said. "And it hit him in the hands."
Lost in the shuffle of Johnson, Gardner and Conley was senior Rickey Paulding, who finished with 12 points and nine assists, despite only two easily explainable points in the second half.
"I guess it's because Thomas scored 18 points in the first half," Paulding said. "When guys are playing like that, and AJ's doing good and so are Travon and Jason, it takes the pressure of me offensively."
The team effort also clearly helped the Tigers win, something they will have to do a lot of with only six games left in the season and hope for the NCAA Tournament still alive.