Just like the game earlier this season at Mizzou Arena, it wasn’t easy for the Missouri Tigers to put away the Texas Tech Red Raiders in their opening game of the Big 12 Tournament on Wednesday. It was a game of runs, with the final score coming down to the wire – a close 88-84.
Missouri seemed to have the game in hand several times throughout the evening, but every time the Tigers would build a big lead, Texas Tech would erase it in a matter of seconds.
Early, the game looked like it was going to be a battle all night. Tech was hitting their shots with ease, getting into the paint with ease and frankly outhustling a Mizzou team built almost solely on outhustling its opponents. For stretches of the game Wednesday, it wasn’t quite obvious which team billed themselves as the Fastest 40 Minutes.
Whenever the season’s typical problems presented themselves for the Tigers – foul trouble, poor shooting and turnovers – the game swung in the direction of Texas Tech. When Missouri was able to cut down on those things, the game stayed in their favor. Call it the most simple analysis of a basketball game you’ve ever read, but it’s true. Tech was able to hang with the Tigers for much of the first half because Laurence Bowers was relegated to the bench with two quick fouls. The Red Raiders were shooting at a very high percentage early on, and they were getting plenty of opportunities to do so with multiple second chances.
But, as time wore on, Tech’s shooting percentage dropped, and Mizzou started scoring the basketball on fastbreak opportunities. Credit Marcus Denmon, Michael Dixon and Justin Safford. The two guards forced the issue, getting to basket and scoring in the paint on the break, as well as sinking outside shots. Safford made a huge contribution off the bench while Bowers had to sit out. He finished with 10 points, going 5-10 from the floor. Denmon and Dixon were the Tigers’ two leading scorers, with 20 and 17 points respectively. Kim English chipped in with a quiet, but crucial 15 points.
Most wondered if Tech would give Mizzou some problems, due to their close game from earlier in the year, as well as Mizzou’s troubles away from Columbia. At times Wednesday night, it was a question of not just problems, but whether or not the Red Raiders would run the Tigers out of the gym. Missouri showed a major flaw in their game towards the end of Wednesday’s game, as the Raiders used the full court press to force bad Tiger turnovers.
One would think that playing that pressuring style of defense, Missouri would practice against it. But the Tigers were completely flustered by Tech’s pressure, and it narrowed the lead as the clock ticked down. Thankfully for Mizzou, a questionable decision by outgoing coach Pat Knight, who coached in his final game with Tech Wednesday, might have saved the game.
Dixon, with a three-point lead and just seconds remaining on the clock, missed the back end of a pair of free throws. Tech grabbed the rebound and brought the ball up court, but no timeout was called. Then, the Red Raiders proceeded to drive the lane and throw up a misguided layup attempt instead of trying to tie the game with a three-pointer. It’s a decision that this observer found very questionable, and it could just be a debate over basketball strategy. But, with a timeout remaining and just a few ticks left on the clock, it is surprising Knight didn’t opt to draw up a play. It truly might have clinched the victory for the Tigers.
With the win – a win that snaps a three-game losing streak – the Tigers advance to the second round of the Big 12 Tournament. There, they’ll meet another team they struggled against earlier in the season. Unlike the game against Texas Tech, however, Mizzou suffered a loss on the road to Thursday’s opponent – the Texas A&M Aggies. It brings a whole new set of the same old questions for the Tigers. Can they defeat a quality team away from Mizzou Arena? Can their bigs stay out of foul trouble? Will they hang on to the ball? Will they shoot well? No matter how far the Tigers advance in this tournament or the next, those questions are going to follow them into every game. It’s up to them to provide the answers.