Narrow losses have the ability to leave a coach scratching his head, disappointed that his team could not make the play or two that would have swung the outcome. This situation often leads to coaches encouraging their players about what they did well instead of harping on what they did poorly.
Turns out close victories can have the opposite effect. Missouri coach Quin Snyder had just seen the Tigers cough up a 13-point lead before storming back in the closing minutes to earn a 62-59 win against Iowa State in their Big 12 opener on Saturday afternoon at Mizzou Arena but, overwhelmingly, he was more pessimistic than encouraged.
"I was really disappointed," Snyder said. "A lot of the little things we've been building on, we didn't see. I think we got complacent with the lead but, even before we got the lead, I didn't feel like we deserved the lead. I just didn't think we were playing the right way."
The negative adjectives were flying after the game. Snyder said the Tigers were "really soft" after they built up their lead. He said the players weren't working as a group like they should, suggesting their effort lacked the "consistency of purpose and effort."
Simply put, it was not the Tiger team Snyder has been used to seeing recently, even with the win.
"I just think we lost track of who we were," Snyder said.
They lost track of the Cyclones defensively in the second half. After a floater by freshman point guard Jason Horton at 16:38 gave the Tigers a 41-29 lead, Missouri would not score from the field again until Horton hit a 3-pointer from the left wing at 4:05.
Going 12:33 without a field goal is rarely conducive to winning. The Cyclones, whose aggressive 2-3 matchup zone defense forced the Tigers into bad looks all game, took advantage on a 28-4 run before Horton's 3-point fell through to cut the Tigers' deficit to 57-48.
Missouri was as lackadaisical on the defensive end as they were monumentally inefficient on offense during the stretch, allowing Iowa State to completely turn the game around. Snyder suggested that defensive sluggishness led to the offensive struggles.
"I thought we were soft," Snyder said. "We didn't want to compete. When we get after it defensively, you end up making more plays offensively."
To try to turn it around, Snyder waited a while before taking a timeout during the Cyclones' run, hoping to let the Tigers settle their own problems. It surely took longer than Snyder would have liked, and they faced a nine-point deficit when it began to come together, but the Tigers eventually figured it out.
"I challenged them and I thought they responded," Snyder said. "They challenged each other…
"I can't just every time out break the clipboard and throw a chair and scream at them. I could -- and sometimes you want to -- but I think it has a deadening effect. These guys have done a really good job of taking ownership of the things we as a staff have told them are important. We just lost our grip on that today, particularly in one stretch."
It came rushing back after Horton's 3-pointer, which began a 13-0 run. Sophomore forward Linas Kleiza continued the rush, hitting two free throws and a three-point play to cut the deficit to 57-53. Horton poked the ball away from Stinson, converted a layup in transition and made it a three-point play on the Tigers' next crack.
Another transition layup, this one by freshman forward Marshall Brown, gave the Tigers the lead. Guard Curtis Stinson scored the final two of his 22 points on Iowa State's next possession, reestablishing a one-point Cyclone advantage. But a twisting, fall-away leaner by junior point guard Jimmy McKinney returned the lead to the Tigers.
Iowa State had two cracks at taking the lead or tying the game, but a Stinson turnover and a missed 3-pointer at the buzzer by John Neal sandwiched around two McKinney free throws handed the Tigers a win, an emotional one that probably never should have been as close as it ended up being.
"We started to get really scared and that's when we turned it completely around," said senior guard Jason Conley, who led the Tigers with 13 points. "We started to get a couple of stops and hit some shots. That's a big deal in these types of games."
Even though it was less than convincing, the win improved the Tigers to 9-5 and, more importantly, 1-0 in Big 12 play. It was a win the Tigers needed to have a chance to start conference play strong, as visits to Oklahoma State and Kansas State next week will be quite a test for a team that has yet to leave its home state.
It also meant the rest of the weekend would not be quite as miserable as stretches of Saturday were.
"I'm just happy we came back and got the (win) because practice would be very tough tomorrow," Kleiza said. "I mean, it's gonna be tough anyways."
McKinney spins, shoots, swishes: McKinney's twirling, go-ahead basket was a remarkably difficult shot, as he spun away from Stinson's defense to get a relatively open look at the basket at the free throw line. His momentum carried him toward the sideline, moving him away from the rim as he released the ball.
The shot fell through, and even he could not convert the foul he drew on Stinson, McKinney said he was pleased that his shots made the difference.
"I'm overdue; I need something to fall," McKinney said. "I'm way overdue. I've got a little bit more I need to do to help the team win."
As he continues to struggle with his perimeter game, McKinney's offensive production has been consistent but not overwhelming. But McKinney was perfect from inside the arc against the Cyclones, including converting the most important attempt of the game.
"That was just one of my moves," McKinney said. "I was just not thinking; I was just going, and it fell for me. When I'm just attacking and let my mind free, the game comes easy. The game's real slow."
Pressing matters: Iowa State used a full-court trap to limit the Tigers' access to the offensive end, forcing 20 turnovers in the process. The pressure earned the Cyclones' some cheap fouls early in the game, but they seemed to get a better handle on it later in the game; Iowa State's 28-4 run included eight of its 13 steals. The Tigers shot 51 percent from the field but their turnovers allowed them to take only 17 shots in the second half.
Horton cited the Tigers' lack of focus as a contributing factor to their turnover problems.
"We just weren't being strong with it," Horton said. "Down the stretch, we started being more strong with it and came out with the victory."
Horton suggested that it was the Tigers' difficulties that limited them much more than anything the Cyclone defense was offering them.
"We just have to maintain aggressiveness," he said.
That aggressiveness bore fruit during the Tigers' rally. Two steals, one each by Brown and McKinney, gave the Tigers transition layups and the chance to make a game of it again.
Courting the Cowboys: Missouri faces a monumental task on Tuesday when it travels to Stillwater to face Oklahoma State. It's not exactly the best place to experience a road game for the first time this season, as the atmosphere at Gallagher-Iba Arena has forced talented teams into brutal performances.
"Nobody wins there; that's how it is," Conley said. "There are teams that actually go down to play them and say, ‘You know what? Let's just consider this as a loss.' That's not how we feel about."
Perhaps the Tigers had the Cowboys in mind with the streakiness of the second half. Kleiza suggested the overwhelming run on which the Tigers ended the game could push them to some Stillwater success.
"When we came back, we were just building some momentum going to Oak State," Kleiza said. "That's definitely gonna be a great test for us. If we're gonna win, we have to play perfect. That's a Final Four-caliber team."
Mike's musings: A win is a win. It's a little surprising to hear Snyder overtly critique his players after the game; perhaps he is trying to move beyond his reputation as a player's coach. But it's clear the Tigers believe just about everything Snyder says: To a man, the players agreed that they were playing soft for most of the second half. … The Tigers continue to show balance offensively. Four players scored in double digits and several players contributed to their final run. Although a team-high of 13 points probably won't be good enough to topple teams like Oklahoma State, there are signs of a patient, varied offense.
Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock are greatly underappreciated. If these two had more than one solid contributor in the post, they could take the Cyclones a long way. Even their main man inside, Jared Homan, struggled to do much against the Tigers; he scored six points and had six rebounds in 39 minutes. … Sophomore guard Thomas Gardner continues to struggle with his outside shot. He sat a large portion of the second half and finished with just two points, dropping his season scoring average back into single digits at 9.7 points. He'll need to find consistency soon for the Tigers to be even an average perimeter shooting team.