There are many adjectives one can use to describe sophomore forward Linas Kleiza's game: Diverse, powerful, streaky and game-changing are among them. One description few would offer is soft. Maybe we should.
"The last couple games, I've been a little soft (inside)," Kleiza said Saturday. "Sometimes you get double-teamed and they strip the ball and stuff. I just gotta go in and be strong, make referees make those calls. I was successful today."
To say the least. Kleiza was a force beneath the basket, pouring in 31 points and adding 10 rebounds for his second double-double in as many games in Missouri's 80-70 win against Nebraska on Saturday afternoon at Mizzou Arena. Kleiza was the focus of a reshaped Tiger offense, which relied less on the 3-pointer and more on attacking the basket and getting to the free-throw line.
"We're better when we're going to him on the block, no question about it," coach Quin Snyder said. "Especially because that's where he gets to the line."
Kleiza did that with proficiency against the Cornhuskers, reaching the line 17 times and converting 15 of those attempts. A miss in the first half ended a run of 18 consecutive made free throws, but Kleiza didn't seem to care after the game.
"I'm not even concerned about it," he said. "It's just about making them, you know? I messed up, but for me it's just getting to the free-throw line. That's our main focus."
Kleiza's trips to the line were symptomatic of the approach of the entire team. Missouri went to the free-throw line 31 times, compared to just 10 for the Cornhuskers. The disparity was more apparent in the second half; the Tigers attempted 21 free throws then and Nebraska took just four.
Chucking the ball inside to the big man -- "feeding the beast," as senior guard Jason Conley called it -- was successful this time around because Kleiza was able to capitalize, hitting 8-of-12 shots. That included just one 3-point attempt, which he missed.
"That's big for him," Conley said. "He usually shoots a lot of threes. When he scores inside, he's hard to stop."
The rest of the team followed that trend, attempting just 14 3-pointers. It was the first time in Big 12 play that the Tigers (10-8, 2-2 Big 12), who entered the game 11th in the league in 3-point shooting, attempted fewer 3-pointers than their opponent.
"I've threatened a lot of things with our guys about 3-point shots," Snyder said. "We're trying to coach to take, not to make. I think you've got to be able to have confidence in certain situations to make a shot."
Few of those arose Saturday, but one came at key times. After leading by as many as 11 points in the first half, Nebraska charged back late and took a brief 37-33 lead. A technical foul for hanging on the rim assessed to Nebraska's Wes Wilkinson gave junior guard Jimmy McKinney two points at the free-throw line and the Tigers another possession before the half ended. Sophomore guard Thomas Gardner took advantage, hitting a 3-pointer from the left wing as the horn sounded to give Missouri a one-point edge at the break.
From there, it was all Kleiza. With Nebraska (8-7, 2-2) still hanging around, Missouri turned a slim 52-51 edge into a comfortable 15-point cushion with a 21-7 run. Nearly all of the points came on the inside, either in transition or just by funneling the ball into Kleiza, who scored 10 points in the run.
Nebraska threw several players at Kleiza to try to slow him down, but nobody could get the job done. Once the Tigers realized Kleiza was the man to get the job done, Snyder said, they focused on him.
"As the game progressed, our guys did a good job of identifying that," he said. "They were switching a lot of screens so he ended up a lot of times with a smaller guy. It took us a little bit to recognize that; once our guys saw that, we were able to go to him."
After watching his entire team struggle from the perimeter the past few games, Snyder reinforced the importance of getting Kleiza inside looks, both to Kleiza and the rest of the team.
"The most important thing that we did on the offensive end was attack the rim," Conley said. "There's time when we shoot a lot of threes and we kind of pray that some of them will fall. I think if we go to the rim, we'll do a lot more scoring and get a lot more fouls."
It was enough to push the Tigers past the Cornhuskers, in a game the Tigers had to have to salvage their season.
"We needed this game bad, to get our confidence back and to get back in the hunt in the Big 12," Kleiza said. "This game definitely meant a lot."
Discovering "the blueprint:" Snyder was considerably more upbeat in his postgame press conference, which is not much of a surprise since the Tigers played much better than they had the past two games. After describing in detail the impact Kleiza can have on the game, Snyder suggested the Tigers might have figured out what it needs to do to win on a consistent basis.
"This is kind of a blueprint of how we need to play," Snyder said. "We know that. Sometimes you've got to hang on a little tighter to it and we were really focused on doing that today."
Reverting to the team-focused commentary that he often uses, Snyder suggested the Tigers, after two brutal losses, came together as a team to make sure the same thing didn't happen against the Cornhuskers.
"I think a lot of it stems from their commitment to each other," Snyder said. "To play this way and attack inside, get to the line, it's not about one guy making a shot; it's about a team being focused on finding weak spots and it's about team defense."
To restate the blueprint: Play strong and consistent defense, pound the ball inside and take care of the ball. But can the Tigers continue to do this, especially when they play the more talented teams of the Big 12?
"Yeah, of course, we're very capable of doing it," Conley said. "It's not rocket science what we were doing out there. We just played as a team. We just fed Linas."
Gardner said Saturday's improvement was connected to an increased intensity in practice.
"If we practice hard, it translates into games," he said. "I think that we really haven't been going as hard as we wanted to in practice and, in games, we've been a step behind early. Right now, we've got to prepare in practice and that will translate over to the game for us."
Kleiza echoed that sentiment, suggesting the Tigers might have thought they were better than they actually are.
"We just had a couple tough games," he said. "We didn't have energy. We just got a little too confident and we learned our lesson. I hope it's not gonna happen again."
McCray strikes again: As Missouri dribbled out the clock during the final possession of the game, Nebraska guard Joe McCray, who led the Huskers with 16 points, attempted to steal the ball away from freshman point guard Jason Horton. The horn sounded before he could, but Horton was none too pleased afterward, jawing with him at center court.
McCray, who earned a technical when he kicked Kansas guard Michael Lee in Nebraska's two-point loss on Wednesday, wagged a finger in Horton's face before coaches from both sides charged in to intervene. Nothing further came of the face-off; both Snyder and Horton downplayed the confrontation afterward.
"Those situations (at the end of games) sometimes lend themselves to little things like that," Snyder said. "I think both teams probably are looking at it now going, ‘No big deal.'
"I just didn't want anybody to do anything silly to cost (Nebraska) or our team a player the next game."
Horton brushed off the conflict as well.
"I was just trying to dribble out the clock," he said. "It wasn't really anything, just a small incident."
Lament in Lawrence: One of the loudest ovations of the first half came when the public address announcer informed the crowd that Kansas was being demolished at Villanova. Not surprisingly, Kansas' surprising loss came up after the game, as well.
"When you're on the road, anything can happen," Snyder said. "We know what a good team they are and I'm sure they'll bounce back."
Gardner, whose cousins Lee and Aaron Miles are senior guards for the Jayhawks, said Lee might be hearing from him tonight.
"You can be sure of that," he said.
Mike's musings: This was a step in the right direction. Kleiza had the best game of his collegiate career at one of the most important times, basically salvaging what remains of the hopes the Tigers have for the season. Kleiza is starting to realize he needs to go inside for the Tigers to be the best they can be. He still prefers to hang out on the perimeter and stroke 3-pointers, but if he wants to win more often, he'll move inside. … Gardner is beginning to realize the same thing, although he still attempted four 3-pointers, making one. He went 4-of-4 from the charity stripe; taking out junior center Kevin Young's 1-of-4 effort, the Tigers made 93 percent of their attempts.
I still don't understand why Snyder has chained freshman swingman Glen Dandridge to the bench. In talent alone, I'd offer that Dandridge is the most talented perimeter shooter in the Big 12, but the Tigers keep that weapon on the sidelines. Some suggest that Dandridge's defense isn't strong enough to earn him more playing time, but he seems solid to me. He finished with three points and a steal in five minutes. Prediction review: Looks like I underestimated the Tigers, since I called for a three-point win when they might have won by 20 if they had not called off the dogs late. Holding serve at home is absolutely vital if the Tigers want to reach the postseason, but earning at least four wins on the road is just as important now. The Tigers look to begin that at Colorado on Wednesday.