You learn a lot about yourself very quickly in a military setting. Discipline, responsibility and perseverance are all stressed; without them, the personal mindset focuses on the individual, not the group.
Missouri senior guard Jason Conley spent more than two years in this environment at Virginia Military Institute. Conley also flourished as a basketball player there, leading the country in scoring his freshman season.
Those attributes rose to the surface Sunday, when Conley scored eight consecutive Missouri points to get them back in contention against Murray State. Conley's final score brought the Tigers within 48-47, allowing junior guard Jimmy McKinney to take up the reins and score 10 straight points. In all, Conley and McKinney scored 19 of the Tigers' final 20 points, spurring them to a 59-55 win.
Conley, the only scholarship senior on the roster, knew he had to step up.
"I'm a leader on this team, I'm a senior on this team," Conley said. "I'll take that role if it comes down to it."
The Tigers were reeling after Murray State scored seven straight points to take a 46-39 lead before the television timeout at 7:55. Coach Quin Snyder said Conley was instrumental in prepping the team for a rally in the final minutes in the huddle during the stoppage.
"Jason Conley put his foot down and said, ‘No way, I'm not letting this happen,'" Snyder said. "Our guys were all saying the right things and I'm glad that we were rewarded for our perseverance."
Conley showed what he meant immediately, hitting a 3-pointer from the left wing on Missouri's first possession after the timeout and a leaner on Missouri's next try. After the Tigers swatted a ball into their own basket, Conley dunked over a defender and drew a foul, converting the three-point play to draw within one point.
Conley could see some hesitance in his teammates after they fell behind, but all that disappeared after his burst.
"We have to understand that you can't take any breaks when you're out there on the court," Conley said. "When we were down (seven), as a team we got a little scared. We said, ‘You know what, we have time to come back.' And we fought back and won."
Conley could not quite put the Tigers in the lead; that role fell to McKinney, who hit a 3 to give a Tigers a 50-48 margin that they would hold the rest of the way. Following Conley's run, McKinney scored the Tigers' next 10 points, improving from a quiet game with two points to the team leader with 12.
Still, even though the points of Conley and McKinney turned the game around, McKinney said it was a group effort.
"It's a collective thing," McKinney said. "We were making the extra pass. I think we went away from that the last three games. We came back to it tonight, and you could see the results."
Conley deflected the praise as well.
"There's more guys in this room; it's not just me," he said. "I don't feel like every time I'm out there on the court I'm gonna take over, but if the opportunity comes, I will do it."
Lineup shakeup: In a move Snyder said was aimed at refocusing the team on defense, sophomore forward Linas Kleiza and freshman point guard Jason Horton began the game on the bench. In their place, freshman Marshall Brown had his first career start and Conley returned to the starting five.
"(Those are) the guys that have been playing the best defense, whether it be game to game or in practice," Snyder said. "That's something that I've told our team we're gonna hold them accountable for. That's just got to be there; everybody's gotta be committed to that end."
Snyder said he appreciated the change defensively; Missouri used a zone look more often than the past few games and did not give up many open looks. The Racers finished 22-of-60 from the field, a less than stellar 37 percent. They shot 5-of-18 from 3, a 28 percent mark.
"Sometimes it takes that for kids to know how determined you are as a staff to get that type of performance and that type of effort on that defensive end," Snyder said. "Everybody's got to do that."
Sitting Kleiza, probably the team's most talented player, was the biggest surprise. Kleiza looked unsteady at times in the first half and finished the game without reaching double digits for the second straight time. He finished with nine points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes but also had five turnovers and was 0-of-4 from the line.
Still, Snyder was happy with what he got from his sophomore standout.
"I was really proud of Linas today," Snyder said. "He really hung in there and made plays down the stretch, especially on the defensive glass."
Kleiza said coming off the bench did not affect him mentally or his game.
"Whatever is good for the team," Kleiza said. "I don't think it's gonna be long, though."
Too much charity: Missouri was brutal from the line against the Racers, clanking all but 9-of-23 attempts. The main culprits were Missouri's bigs: Kleiza, Brown, junior center Kevin Young and junior center Jeffrey Ferguson combined to go 2-of-11 from the stripe.
Snyder said the problems at the line came from mental struggles that came after missed field goal opportunities.
"I think some of that has to do with where we are mentally," Snyder said. "When things aren't breaking your way, if you turn it over or get in foul trouble or you're missing shots, you get to the line and you're not as confident and dialed in as you need to be."
Snyder said his team could use those troubles as motivation on the defensive end, a mindset Snyder continues to stress repeatedly.
"Not seeing the ball go in the basket in some ways can help us understand the real things we need to do to win," he said. "Today was a game when the ball didn't go in and we found other ways to be in the game. Because we were doing that, all of a sudden the ball goes in. I just believe the basketball gods work that way."
Desperately seeking Spencer: Horton had a quiet day off the bench, finishing with one point, three assists, one steal and two turnovers in 25 minutes. He looks more comfortable running the offense but has yet to find his stroke.
Losing sophomore Spencer Laurie, still sidelined with a high ankle sprain, has hurt more than most expected.
"We miss him, I guess, is the answer," Snyder said. "That high ankle sprain can be a tough thing."
Laurie did not have much of an opportunity to contribute last season, seeing spot duty behind McKinney (and occasionally Conley) at the point. Now, with a freshman learning the ropes, losing Laurie has proved quite damaging.
"Spencer has a calming presence on our team," Snyder said. "When you say to do something, he does it. For a coach, that's just invaluable…
"He's crafty. In those transition situations, that's some of what you need. He may not just blow by his guy all the time, but if you put him in the open court, he finds ways to make plays."
With Laurie's return still uncertain, what will it take to replace him, Coach?
"Some other guys have got to grow up a little quicker," he said.
Mike's musings: I thought it was going to be a rout when the Tigers opened up an early 20-5 lead. All of their shots were falling, they were playing aggressive on the other end of the court and everything was breaking their way. Then, it all stopped, and Murray State's full-court press overwhelmed the Tigers. I think they were fortunate to come out with a win, thanks to a few huge plays by Conley and McKinney and Murray State's inability to hit the outside shot. … Young could average double digits if he could finish at the rim. He was dominant again on the offensive glass, pulling down five rebounds. He finished 3-of-6 from the floor with seven points. His second-half dunk in transition was one of the prettiest plays of the day.
Freshman center Kalen Grimes only saw the court in the latter moments of the second half and I don't understand why. I still think he has played the best of the freshmen so far, but Brown had a good day, hitting two 3-pointers and chipping in three rebounds in just 14 minutes. … Prediction review: I was accurate in that I projected a close game, but I thought both teams would be able to finish more consistently than they did. Missouri shot a respectable 45 percent, but its 17 turnovers would sink them against most major conference teams. Still, this was a quality win and there is a lot Snyder and the rest of the staff can build on.