That Kansas State is so hot right now.
Seriously, though, it’s going to take a mighty effort from any team to beat the Wildcats with the way they’re playing. And Jacob Pullen is simply playing out of his mind. But, forget about Pullen’s 24 points and the three-pointer he hit in the waning minutes Saturday to put the Tigers away. It wasn’t the Maywood, Ill., native that spurred a Mizzou loss in Manhattan.
The truth is, the same road haunts plagued the Tigers again on Saturday. While Marcus Denmon called last Saturday’s win at Iowa State the season’s biggest – the first and only conference road win for the Tigers this season – Mizzou didn’t play well. And it wasn’t terribly difficult to foresee more difficulties away from Columbia.
Saturday was no different than most of the other road games have been in 2011. Mizzou piled up foul after foul in the first half, and it didn’t slow down too much in the second half either, as Tiger big men were marching to bench one after the other, all in significant foul trouble. Ricardo Ratliffe, Justin Safford and a handful of guards went into halftime with a pair of fouls, and Steve Moore had three in just three minutes. In fact, the only Tiger without a foul in the first half was Denmon.
For most of the second half, Mike Anderson played a four-guard lineup. With its big men on the bench, Mizzou was being eaten alive on the boards, and K-State capitalized on a plethora of second-chance opportunities. Similarly, it was usually one and done for the Tigers on the offensive end, with no big men to keep possessions alive. The final rebounding totals were horrifying if you wear black and gold, with the Wildcats holding a 34-21 rebounding advantage.
Now it wasn’t all gloom and doom for the Tigers. Sure, they allowed a hot-shooting Pullen to score 11 of his team’s first 13 points, and they saw an early 11-point lead for the Cats. But, they clawed back slowly throughout the first half. The halftime deficit was just three points, and Mizzou tied it up fairly early in the second frame. They even snatched a lead at one point. With the game going back and forth in the middle of the second half, Michael Dixon tied the game up at 60-60 with a three pointer at the 6:16 mark. That’s when things went awry.
Turnovers, fouls and missed shots by Mizzou allowed K-State to get hot at the worst possible time. The Cats went on a huge run, and the Tigers wouldn’t make another field goal, netting just two free throws, for the next five and a half minutes. Denmon stopped the bleeding with a three-pointer with 50 seconds left in the game, but the damage had already been done.
Now, give credit where credit is due. K-State is playing great basketball right now, and Saturday was no exception. They made almost 52 percent of their shots, they limited turnovers and they took advantage of the Tigers’ foul trouble. They played a great game.
On the Mizzou side, Laurence Bowers had his second straight monster game following a 20-point performance against Baylor Wednesday. His 12 first-half points carried the Tigers, and he also had six boards and two blocks in that first half. Denmon took over the scoring duties in the second half, scoring 16 points, half of the Tigers 32 points in that frame.
The point guard duo of Phil Pressey and Dixon played together most of the game, something Mike Anderson has done before, but not for this extended period of time. Both guys played well, combining for 18 points, six rebounds, six assists and four steals. Their speed and disruption of the Wildcats also went a long way in making this game close.
With all the foul trouble and missed baskets for the Tigers, Anderson had to go with pretty much the same lineup all game long. Dixon, Pressey, Denmon, Bowers and Kim English logged the most court time, with Matt Pressey getting a ton of minutes as the major backup. Ratliffe played just 12 minutes, and the bench trio of Safford, Moore and Ricky Kreklow totaled just 11 minutes. You don’t say that the Tigers get tired too often, and they didn’t look it on the court Saturday, but you wonder if four Tigers playing 30+ minutes affected them. The non-Ratliffe starters all played 30+ minutes, with Bowers playing the most, a whopping 37 minutes. Those are NBA minutes.
Now, as mentioned earlier, it did not take too much thought to see that this game was going to be a hard one for the Tigers to win. Between their road struggles all year and K-State’s recent on fire-ness, this looked to add up to a Mizzou loss. Wednesday’s game in Lincoln against the Huskers would seem to be a much more winnable affair – although Nebraska has been a tough nut to crack this year as well. There are just two games remaining in the 2011 regular season for Mizzou, and one of those is a date with KU. That adds a little added pressure to win Wednesday’s game. And, if there wasn’t enough at stake already, the K-State win allowed the Wildcats to jump the Tigers in the Big 12 standings, meaning if the season ended Saturday, Mizzou would not have a bye in the conference tournament. That’s just one more game to have to win. One more game away from Mizzou Arena.