No baskets in the final eight minutes. Shooting 41 percent from the free-throw line, even worse on 3-pointers. A recipe for a stomping at the hands of the No. 12 team in the country, right?
Apparently not, at least for this Missouri bunch on this night. The Tigers rode a strong start to sneak across the finish line and grab a 63-61 upset win against Gonzaga on Thursday night at Mizzou Arena.
Senior swingman Jason Conley, who led the Tigers with 16 points and 13 rebounds, was surprised to hear how impotent the Tigers had become late in the game.
"Our defense is getting better, that's all I can say," he said. "At the end of the game, it doesn't matter how long you didn't score or how long you didn't get a field goal. If you have more points than them, that's all you need."
And that's about all the Tigers could manage. After taking an early 11-4 edge, Missouri rode that lead to a 38-35 halftime margin. Gonzaga charged back midway through the second half, tying it at 47 on a baseline jumper by J.P. Batista with 14:05 left. The Tigers then took command briefly, piecing together a 14-4 run that included two 3-pointers by sophomore guard Thomas Gardner. The rally was capped by a layup by junior center Kevin Young at 8:27 and gave the Tigers a 61-51 edge.
It would be the last basket the Tigers made, but it held up. After fighting through and around Gonzaga's 2-3 zone for 32 minutes, Missouri seemed to just run out of gas, missing their final 10 shots.
"I thought we started standing and I thought we got a little tired," coach Quin Snyder said. "We weren't cutting as well and we weren't getting the ball to the post."
Much of that was due to a lack of experience there; Young and sophomore forward Linas Kleiza fouled out in the final minutes, leaving few interior options. Everything came down to the defense, which let Gonzaga score 10 points in the final eight minutes, not quite enough to steal away a win.
Not that they didn't have a chance. After a Batista layup brought Gonzaga within 62-61, Young missed three of four free throws during the Tigers' next two possessions. Gonzaga forward Ronny Turiaf earned a trip to the line and knocked Young out of the game with 8.4 seconds left, but the 78-percent free-throw shooter missed both attempts.
Freshman forward Kalen Grimes grabbed the rebound of Turiaf's second miss and was quickly fouled with 7.6 seconds left. Grimes returned the favor, missing both shots and giving the Bulldogs a chance to tie...or win.
It didn't happen. Turiaf badly missed a runner, which glanced off the side of the backboard directly to swingman Adam Morrison, who turned to heave an awkward 3-pointer from the right wing that would have given Gonzaga the win. But just like the Bulldog comeback, it fell short.
"Fortunatatly, our D held up," Snyder said.
"We're making it tough for them, and that's how it's gotta be," junior guard Jimmy McKinney said. "If we don't score, we have to make it tough for them on the other end."
The dramatic ending overshadowed Conley's effort, which Snyder called the most complete of Conley's Missouri career. Conley didn't score in the final 12 minutes, but his early effort was enough to earn the Tigers a surprising victory.
"Coop had his best game, in my mind, since he's been here," Snyder said. "(When) you get 13 rebounds in a game like this, you're finding other ways to help your team win. That was just a tremendous effort."
Illinois energy: Moral victories are often the goal of the downtrodden, but there is little to be disappointed about when you fall to the country's top-rated team by six points. Missouri experienced that last week, playing a strong second half before falling to Illinois. That game, combined with a comeback win four days earlier against Indiana, gave the Tigers a little momentum, which carried over into Thursday's game.
The loss was a loss, but it was a good loss, if such a thing exists.
"Although we did lose that game, I think we learned that if we can play with them, we can play with just about anybody in the country," Conley said. "It was a big confidence booster for us."
Although Illinois has struggled since claiming Braggin' Rights, the Tigers' effort in the second half of that game showed they have the talent to compete with everybody. Conley even took it a step further.
"As soon as that game was over, we knew that we took a big step forward," Conley said. "Those guys were scared, I think. They hadn't faced anybody that gave them a real game."
Snyder chalked up Thursday's win to a consistent effort, which he had yet to see from his Tigers throughout 40 minutes this season.
"When we talk about who we are, to me that's talking about an identity," Snyder said. "This is a pretty good step towards that identity. We've got to do it again; that's the challenge, that consistency with young players. For them to taste it and have success is a big help in repeating it."
Post-game physicality: After Morrison's desperation 3-pointer fell short, McKinney took advantage of an opportunity to rub a little salt in the wounds of the Bulldogs, wagging a finger in Morrison's face as a portion of the student section rushed the court. The players were quickly separated, but Morrison was not too pleased about it after the game.
"One of the players put his fingers in my face and said a few choice words that I can't say in the papers," Morrison said. "I just told him to get his hand out of my face. That's what it was…
"He was excited they won, so I took my hat off to them. But at the same turn, you've got to be respectful. They won, we lost, leave it at that."
In his laidback fashion, McKinney smiled and brushed off the whole experience.
"Just players talking a little trash," he said. "Competitiveness, that's all."
Snyder complimented Morrison and defended his player when asked about the situation.
"I don't know Adam," Snyder said. "I know he's a heck of a player. I do know Jimmy. I think that stuff kind of happens sometimes with players when they want to win."
Fighting the frustration...and the pain: The disappointment after the loss was palpable in the Gonzaga locker room, which Turiaf exited as soon as possible, evading several reporters in the process. Turiaf was frustrated about his 2-of-15 shooting effort, which yielded six points, the second fewest he has scored this season.
"We have no excuse, I have no excuse," he said. "I can't come out with no energy. I can't come out and let my team down like I did tonight. I did a poor job and my team lost. Hopefully I won't do it again."
Turiaf played on two sore ankles, the most recent injury coming during practice on Christmas night. Turiaf said he was still not 100 percent, but refused to blame his performance on his injuries.
"I'm supposed to be a leader and I'm supposed to knock down those two free throws," he said. "I didn't. I sucked. That's it."
Mike's musings: In this space, I often suggest that reading too much into this game is dangerous, that the Tigers might not be as good/bad as they looked this time out. I'm going to avoid that this time; with its best players managing to stay on the court for just 21 minutes, Missouri still upset a talented Gonzaga team. Yes, Gonzaga was coming off an emotional win and was not at 100 percent, but this has the makings of a quick turnaround. … Then again, if Missouri stumbles against American next week, everything good about this win is lost. I can't see a loss to the Eagles on the horizon, but it would not be shocking if the Tigers play down to their competition and struggle to put American away. We'll learn more about Missouri on Tuesday than we learned about them Thursday night.
There are still statistics to be concerned about coming out of this game. The Bulldogs outrebounded the Tigers 43-33 and pulled down 20 offensive rebounds. The Tigers made 41 percent of their free throws and 25 percent of their 3-pointers. Conversely, there is plenty to be proud of. Gonzaga shot just 38 percent, 14 percent below their average. And Turiaf and Morrison, a pair as good as any in the country, combined for 18 points and were unable to convert in the closing seconds against a suddenly potent Tiger defense. Prediction review: Is it time for me to stop underrating these Tigers? I called for a 75-63 Gonzaga win, so I guessed the number of points the Tigers were score. Good for me. Better for the Tigers, who won what shaped up as the most important game of their season to this point.