A successful game plan usually doesn't involve making just one basket in an 11-minute stretch, but Missouri managed to turn that trick in a 77-61 win against Houston on Tuesday night.
The stretch ran from a basket by sophomore forward Linas Kleiza at 12:58 of the first half to inside the 2-minute mark. It included only a lay-up by junior center Kevin Young, but the Tigers managed four points in the stretch, adding free throws from junior guard Jimmy McKinney and Kleiza. An early 22-14 lead turned into a 29-25 deficit before the Tigers stopped the bleeding.
Fittingly, a big play from Kleiza brought it to an end. After he gathered an errant McKinney free throw, Kleiza found an opening at the top of the arc and nailed a 3-pointer, a four-point possession that pulled the Tigers even.
From there, the Tigers made up for lost time. Three free throws from freshman point guard Horton and McKinney and a three-pointer from senior guard Jason Conley gave Missouri a 35-29 halftime edge. By scoring nine of the first 10 points in the second half, Missouri put the finishing touches on a 20-1 run, led by 14 points and cruised to a comfortable win.
Instead of the shots finally beginning to fall, to a man the Tigers attributed the streak to improved work on the defensive end.
"I thought we really defended," coach Quin Snyder said. "The last five minutes of the first half, we really turned it up defensively and I thought that carried through to the second half."
"We just knew we can't play defense like we started off," Kleiza said. "We were able to pick it up at the end of the first half and just carry it over to the second half."
"The second half, I really got into the game, got my head into the game and we stepped up on defense," sophomore guard Thomas Gardner said. "When I play defense, my offense will come."
It came in bunches this night. Four Tigers finished with more than 14 points: Kleiza led all scorers with 19 (adding 14 rebounds for his fourth career double-double), followed by Gardner's 18 (15 of which came in the second half), McKinney's 16 and Conley's 14.
"There's a lot of guys that can put up numbers," McKinney said. "Any given night, any guy in this locker room can hurt you."
Now if only they can do it on a consistent basis…
Survived and advanced: After winning the aptly-named Missouri regional, the Tigers have advanced to the semifinals of the Guardians Classic and will face Creighton in the semifinals on Tuesday. With a win, they face the winner of Ohio State and Houston -- who earned the wild-card bid -- in the championship game Wednesday. A loss will drop them to the consolation game Wednesday against the loser of Ohio State-Houston.
Gardner earned Missouri Regional MVP honors.
"I think it's a terrific addition, someone we saw this summer and we felt really fit the kind of versatility we're looking for right now," Snyder said. "He's got a great upside."
The interesting part about his decision is that Missouri has yet to open up another scholarship for next season. With only guard Jason Conley departing, the Tigers will have one scholarship to give, which they have already awarded to Keaton Grant. Speculation points to walk-on guard Marcus Watkins losing his scholarship, but nothing official will be announced any time soon.
Night Cap: The surprise performance of the evening came from Young, who finished with eight points -- a career high -- and seven rebounds. Without suspended center Jeffrey Ferguson available, Young seized the opportunity and made an impact offensively.
"Kevin was terrific," Snyder said. "He was completely selfless and he played off the other guys, finished plays and really anchored us defensively. It was the best game I've seen him play on both ends of the floor."
Young is usually looked at as a reliable performer defensively, not much of an option on the other end of the floor. That changed Tuesday.
"All of a sudden, he's making good plays," Snyder said. "That's the key thing for any of our guys, to lose themselves in the team. When you do that, it's amazing how much success you have individually."
Nothing about Young's evening was flashy. All of his points came on lay-ups, mostly on put-backs. He led the Tigers with four offensive rebounds and was a big reason why Missouri out-rebounded Houston 39-28.
Having a reliable post presence will give the Tigers more options offensively, Kleiza said.
"I hope he keeps up playing like that," Kleiza said. "We need him. We had ‘Dock' last year, a big guy. Kevin picked it up and showed everybody what he is able to do."
If Young can produce on the offensive end, Kleiza will have more room to operate, opening up opportunities for him to make plays on the perimeter.
"I know Linas does not dream of playing down low," Young said. "When I do that, it helps him out a whole lot more. I hope I can do that every game for my teammates. They know what my job is here…I'm gonna play the hardest D as I can and get the most rebounds as I can. If I get going a little offensively, it's fun."
But is expecting eight points a night too much from Missouri's mist experienced big man?
"I wouldn't mind, I'll put it that way," Young said. "I'm just going out there to play as hard as I can. If it's a good game for me, it's a good game. I'm just trying to make hustle plays and work as hard as I can."
No trouble zone: After struggling against Brown's aggressive 2-3 zone Monday, Missouri was much more successful against the Cougars. Houston coach Tom Penders said he tried to throw in a little zone in the first half, but the results were less than fantastic.
"We used it for four minutes and got burned," he said. "They were something like 5-for-6 from the floor in the zone, so I said, ‘Enough.'"
Houston avoided the look the rest of the game, but the results were not what Penders was looking for. Hitting a few shots against the defense early gave the Tigers a mental boost, Gardner said.
"Jason Conley and Jimmy McKinney really started it off for us today," he said. "They came out and knocked down open shots. That forced them to go back to man-to-man and we got a chance to get the ball through windows and just try to run our plays."
The Tigers finished 24-of-48 from the field, including 12-of-23 from 3, doubling their accuracy in the past 24 hours.
"(The Brown game) is something that is going to happen," Gardner said. "You're gonna have bad shooting nights. I think it's very rare with our team, where we're mentally at, to have two bad shooting games back to back."
Mike's musings: Sophomore point guard Spencer Laurie was one of the best players on the floor tonight. The box score doesn't show it -- he had one point, three assists, two steals and two turnovers in 18 minutes -- but Laurie contributed elsewhere, drawing two charging fouls. Snyder said Laurie "played an excellent floor game;" if he has many more of them, he'll beat out Horton for the starting job. … Overall, the freshman class had a tough night. Forward Marshall Brown looked hesitant and made poor decisions with the basketball, while forward Glen Dandridge committed three fouls in just four minutes of action. Center Kalen Grimes played just three minutes in the first half and finished with two rebounds in seven minutes, but that was likely due to Young's strong performance.
Brown proved to be an especially mediocre team during a 92-79 loss to Sam Houston State in the consolation game. The Bearkats dominated the second half, limiting Luke Ruscoe to stifle the Bear offense. How Missouri struggled to put that team away is hard to fathom, but Penders suggested the Tigers didn't have the intensity they needed to blow out their overmatched opponent. … Prediction review: I called for an 83-75 win, so I was off the mark. Offensively, the Tigers performed about as how I expected, although I was looking for more from Houston's Andre Owens. Missouri forced the Cougars into 36.7 percent shooting in the second half, so the potential appears to be there for the Missouri defense. Any 11-minute scoring droughts will sink the Tigers against any decent opponent, though.