After Missouri knocked off Murray State last Sunday, Linas Kleiza said he would be surprised if he were out of the starting lineup much longer.
It made sense, after all; the sophomore forward is the Tigers' leading scorer and probably their most talented player. Keeping him out of the game early seems like it would put Missouri at a disadvantage in the opening minutes.
If Kleiza's effort against Oakland on Saturday afternoon is not enough to convince coach Quin Snyder to promote him back into the starting five, nothing will. Kleiza finished with 13 points, nine rebounds and nine assists to lead the Tigers to 70-61 win against the Grizzlies at Mizzou Arena.
Snyder said he was happy to see Kleiza become more multidimensional.
"We need Linas to make plays to win," Snyder said. "This is a good blueprint for him. He came out and he wasn't hunting his shot. He set the tone for himself and didn't press on his shots."
That freed up Kleiza to make plays for his teammates. He was one of three Tigers to reach double figures, as sophomore guard Thomas Gardner and senior swingman Jason Conley both finished with 18 points.
The pair sparked a 12-0 run early in the second half that turned a tie game into a 50-38 Missouri edge. Gardner scored the first six points of the rally, followed by two 3-pointers by Conley. Oakland rallied late but could not cut the deficit to fewer than four points.
When asked about his performance, Conley quickly deflected the praise to Kleiza. Gardner did the same.
"Linas had a great game today," Gardner said. "He really came out and got his team involved and got himself involved."
Many have criticized Kleiza for not looking for the open man on offense. A talented performer offensively, Kleiza has a lot of confidence in his shooting tough, often leading him into throwing up some ugly attempts. Although he took 15 shots (and converted six), that was not the case against Oakland.
"I'm just really proud of Linas," Snyder said. "He wants to be a player and he wants to win, but he's finding out how he has to go about that now. What he did tonight, I think that really set the tone."
Instead of sulking about his situation, Kleiza has let his game do the talking; he responded by coming within two plays of his first triple-double at any level of competition.
"(Coming off the bench) doesn't frustrate me at all," Kleiza said. "It just gives me that extra motivation to push myself even harder."
"It's big," he said. "We've got some big games, some real big games, coming up."
Laurie returns: After missing the past three games with a high ankle sprain, sophomore point guard Spencer Laurie returned Saturday. He didn't fill up the stat sheet -- one rebound, one assists and two turnovers in 17 minutes -- but Laurie provided steady leadership.
His return proved even more important because junior guard Jimmy McKinney played through a respiratory infection. He finished one point and two rebounds in 18 minutes.
Laurie said his right ankle is close to 100 percent.
"It's feeling better," he said. "It's hard to say when you're out there; your adrenaline gets going and you're just playing. Every once in a while, you'll feel it, but for the most part, it feels pretty good."
For a stretch in the first half, Snyder used Laurie and freshman point guard Jason Horton at the same time. With two consistent ball handlers on the floor, the offense looked more fluid than it had at any point this season.
Laurie said he enjoyed playing beside Horton.
"He understands the game really well," Laurie said. "I see the same things he sees, so it's easy to make plays."
Focusing on defense: Snyder continues to stress defense more than anything else in his postgame press conferences. He seemed content with Saturday's effort for the most part -- Oakland shot 22-of-53 (42 percent) from the field and 6-of-17 (35 percent) from beyond the arc -- short of a few shortcomings.
"If that's where our focus is, the offensive stuff ends up working out," Snyder said. "If you're aggressive on that end, you'll be aggressive driving the ball. If you're thinking about making your jump shot, you probably aren't guarding."
Gardner might have been doing the latter early in the second half. After he managed just three points in the opening 20 minutes, Gardner was a little lackadaisical on defense on Oakland's first few possession of the second half. Snyder pulled him from the game immediately.
"I was as upset with Thomas as I've been," Snyder said. "He just lost focus in the second half defensively. I pulled him out and got into him a little bit. And he responded, defensively."
And offensively. Once Gardner returned, he keyed the 12-0 run that put the Tigers ahead for good.
"I wasn't playing to my potential and it got me a little frustrated," Gardner said. "Coach took me out and said he was not gonna let it slide."
Holding on: For the second straight game, the Tigers coughed up a big first-half lead before the halftime horn sounded. After letting a 20-5 lead slip away against Murray State, Missouri gave away a 23-10 edge in the closing minutes of the first half.
"That's something we've gotta really look at," Snyder said. "When you work that hard to build a lead…it's hard to dig down and keep grinding. If you can find those spots in the game and really focus and knock somebody back and knock them back again, you can put some games away."
The Tigers have been able to get wins regardless, the past two games at least. Conley said the Tigers are still searching for consistency on both ends of the court.
"We need to learn how to finish people off," he said. "We had spurts when we went up 11, 12 points and then they come back and be within six or whatever. We just have to learn as a team to put teams away."
Conley stopped short of saying the Tigers do not have a "killer instinct" on the floor, however.
"We're getting it," he said. "I'm not going to say we're lacking it because we're winning games. But we're getting it."
Hogs on the horizon: Missouri has two days to regroup before facing Arkansas in its biggest test of the season. Although he was not yet a part of the program, Snyder said he knows all about Missouri's struggles against the Razorbacks, including its 120-68 loss in 1993 that preceded Missouri's undefeated Big 8 campaign.
"I've heard for years about how we went down to Arkansas and had a tough game that night and came back and went undefeated in the league," he said. "I'd love for this team to use this game to try to find itself even more."
Snyder put an unusual amount of emphasis on the game, especially for a nonconference matchup.
"Early in the year, no one game is going to make or break your season," Snyder said. "But this is the game for us. It's a home game, a very special game relative to the new arena. I think it's a game that our team needs, to see ourselves against high-level competition."
Mike's musings: Glen Dandridge fell out of the rotation Saturday, the only scholarship player not to see action against the Grizzlies. The timing was unusual, given McKinney not being 100 percent. Dandridge has yet to prove he can contribute much if his 3-pointer isn't falling, so it might take awhile for him to return to the rotation. … Junior center Jeffrey Ferguson was forcing things offensively in the first half, even taking a 15-footer midway through the period. (He missed.) After scoring two points and pulling down four rebounds in six minutes in the first half, Ferguson did not return for the second half.
Foul trouble became an issue Saturday for the first time this season. Conley had to sit much of the first half but still managed to score 18 in 19 minutes, while junior center Kevin Young was strong, recording seven points and six rebounds, before foul trouble forced him to the bench as well. The Tigers have decent depth, but a lack of experience on the bench could hurt them down the stretch. Prediction review: Time to pat myself on the back. I called for a 70-66 Missouri win, nailing how many points the Tigers would tally. Now if Oakland could have just gotten to the line a few more times…