Two meetings, two surprising comebacks. Could Missouri quite possibly have Indiana's number?
"I've never really ascribed to those things," coach Quin Snyder said. "It didn't feel like we had anybody's number in the first 20 minutes of the game today."
A late first-half run gave the Hoosiers a 15-point halftime edge, but a refocused offense allowed the Tigers to storm back and steal a 56-53 win on Sunday afternoon at Mizzou Arena. After leading by as many as 17, Indiana again was left with nothing but disappointment. And, this time around, its fifth consecutive loss.
Not that last year's game was on the Tigers' minds.
"Not at all," sophomore guard Thomas Gardner said. "I came in at halftime and had a little thought about it, but it really wasn't too much."
And much like last season, Missouri turned to forward Linas Kleiza to turn it around. Kleiza recorded a double-double in last season's comeback win and turned his game up a notch in the second half Sunday. After going 1-of-7 for three points in the first half, Kleiza went 2-of-3 in the second half, doing most of his damage at the line and finishing with 18 points. Missouri focused on driving to the basket on their way to 40 points in the second half, more than doubling their first-half production.
"In the second half, I think that style really helped," Snyder said. "That's how we have to play. Whether it's Linas inside or Jimmy (McKinney) going to the basket or (Jason) Conley going to the basket, we just have to let ourselves have a chance to have something easy happen before we take a jump shot."
That didn't happen in the first half. Flustered by an Indiana zone, Missouri threw up 26 shots, converting just six. In the second half, Kleiza repeatedly took the ball to the basket, where he scored or drew contact.
Freshman swingman Marshall Brown, who with 11 points was the only other Tiger to score in double digits, said it was a change the players made on their own.
"It wasn't anything the coaches said," Brown said. "We just did it. It just kind of happened. We were just playing basketball."
Naturally, playing the game led to the Tigers giving the ball to their most gifted offensive player. Kleiza said he wanted to drive to make up for some early shooting struggles.
"That's what I thought about: ‘Let me get to the free-throw line,'" Kleiza said. "I think I did that. I just thought I had a big advantage today inside, drawing two guys and getting fouled."
Snyder said the second-half turnaround was not possible in the first half; the Tigers simply weren't playing hard enough on the offensive end then.
"In Linas' case, I thought he worked in the second half," Snyder said. "And he picked his spots; he didn't try to drive the ball after the first time he got it. He let it move a little bit and when he got it back, he had better opportunities."
And Missouri took advantage of most of those opportunities, while Indiana could not. With his Hoosiers down by one, guard Bracey Wright had a chance to give his team a win despite having his nose broken in two places by a Spencer Laurie elbow in the first half. After driving on Gardner, Wright fumbled the ball when Kleiza stepped into his path. Kleiza grabbed the ball and threw it down the court, where Brown put the exclamation point on the win with a twirling slam.
None of it would have been possible if the Tigers approached the second half like they did the first, Snyder said.
"All that is moot if our kids bury their heads at halftime," he said. "I was really proud of the resolve that they showed."
Sudden turnaround: The Tigers shot 83 percent from the field in the second half just moments after making 23 percent in the first half. Missouri took just 12 shots in the second; many attempts drew fouls and trips to the free-throw line. Of those 12 shots, all but two were true.
Senior swingman Jason Conley couldn't believe the stat after the game.
"What?" Conley asked, dropping his head into his hands and shaking it in disbelief. "We're so weird like that. We're a roller coaster like that."
The reason for the change was evident. Missouri drove to the basket on nearly every possession it had in the second half, earning open looks or trips to the line. Explaining their improved accuracy, though, was too much for Conley, who scored six points in 27 minutes, to handle.
"I don't know how you do it, to flip it completely like that," he said. "That just shows the game is not over until it's over. That's what important. There was nobody in this locker room saying, ‘It's gonna be a long day' or whatever. All we were saying was, ‘We can win this game.' When you have confidence like that, it shows."
Brown attributed the difference to an improved focus on the defensive end.
"It's basically our defensive effort that helps us get open shots," Brown said. "We came out in the second half determined to get back in the game, and that's what we did."
A scary moment, part one: After Kleiza stole the ball away from Wright on the Hoosiers' final possession, Brown converted with a twirling, 360-degree dunk with under a second to play. The score gave the Tigers a three-point advantage, but simply running out the clock would have been the best solution.
It would have been too appropriate for Brown's attempt to go horribly awry and turn into a last-gasp Indiana heave that fell through the rim, giving Indiana the win.
"As a coach, you realize how much building you have to do when you get a 360 dunk," Snyder said. "We were celebrating, too; we just gotta wait until there's two zeroes up there."
Brown, who looks remarkably similar to Rickey Paulding and can also elevate like him, said he thought a dunk would be the best way to secure the win.
"He was coming to foul me anyway," Brown said. "I was gonna have to score regardless. I'd rather get the sure two than go the free throw line hoping to make two."
But a flashy, spinning jam? That's a guaranteed basket?
"I've been doing it since seventh or eighth grade, so it's a sure two to me," Brown said.
A scary moment, part two: Late in the second half, Wright had Laurie pinned near the center stripe. Laurie spun around and hit Wright flush in the nose with his elbow, toppling him to the ground in pain. After he slowly worked his way back to the locker room, an examination revealed two fractures to Wright's nose.
Despite the injury, Wright returned to the court with a bandage on his nose midway through the second half. He scored four points on 1-of-2 shooting in the second half and finished with 12.
After the incident, which earned Laurie a flagrant foul, Laurie did not play the rest of the game. Snyder said he sat because of continued pain from his high ankle sprain, not the foul.
"Spencer certainly wasn't trying to hurt anybody," Snyder said. "He was trying to protect the ball."
Laurie finished with a rebound, assist and turnover in nine minutes.
Ferg update: Junior center Jeffrey Ferguson went ahead with surgery on his partially torn right meniscus Friday. He was on crutches after Sunday's game and will be out of action until February.
Ferguson averaged 2.8 points and 2.5 rebounds in four games this season. Brown received most of his playing time against the Hoosiers, finishing with 21 minutes, tied for the most in his short Missouri career.
Happy day, sad times?: Graduation day came for many Missouri students this weekend (including for yours truly) and it didn't miss the basketball program. Conley graduated Saturday afternoon with a degree in general agriculture and psychology, but it required quite a bit of effort for him to get to the ceremony on time.
"I had practice from 9:30 to 11:35 (a.m.), so I had to run home, change and sprint back over to the Hearnes," he said. "It was a great feeling."
A moving one, too. With his mother in attendance, Conley found it hard to keep his emotions in check.
"I told myself, ‘I'm not gonna cry; it's not a big deal,'" Conley said. "As soon as I looked over and saw my mom crying, I was, aw man, teary-eyed…
"It just feels good to get that out of the way and now just go ahead and play."
Mike's musings: As with any comeback of the sort, this outcome must be taken with a grain of salt. A huge one. Indiana cannot shoot -- at all -- and, despite improved defense in the second half, Missouri had no right to win this game. But it did, and now the Tigers travel to St. Louis to face what many believe is the best team in the land. If Missouri has a first half against the Illini like it had against the Hoosiers, it will be lucky to lose by 40. … Junior center Kevin Young had an extremely active opening five minutes, pulling down three offensive rebounds and scoring three points. He disappeared from the offense afterward and barely saw the court in the second half.
Similarly, freshman center Kalen Grimes had three points and two rebounds in seven first-half minutes. He played just two minutes in the second half, pulling down one rebound. Missouri had a good thing going with the five it had in the game, so not making a change is understandable. Still, I think the Tigers will be better the more Grimes plays. … Prediction review: I was in the ballpark with my 61-55 Missouri projection, so I've got that going for me. I never would have expected the Tigers to make 83 percent of their shots in the second half, though. Some things are better off a surprise.