Story by Joe Vozzelli
Photos by Karen Mitchell
Alex Oriakhi, center, was called on to step up his game in the absence of injured starter Laurance Bowers. Oriakhi works in the paint against Georgia defenders Nemanja Djurisic (42) and Sherrard Brantley (23) on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 at Mizzou Arena.
Missouri’s Jabari Brown works underneath the basket against Nemanja Djurisic.
Earnest Ross writhes in pain after suffering an injury to his left ankle in Wednesday night’s game against Georgia. Ross would re-enter the game, shooting a game-high 15 points.
Laurence Bowers, right, reacts to a play on the court. Bowers is again on the bench, having injured his right knee. Sitting with him is Corey Haith.
Missouri coach Frank Haith paces the sideline during the first half of Wednesday night’s game against Georgia.
Phil Pressey (1) drives toward the basket against Georgia’s Donte’ Williams (15).
Alex Oriakhi had the kind of game Missouri will need from its senior player moving forward.
Missouri coach Frank Haith said he has high expectations for Oriakhi. “He’s got to be that guy,” Haith said during the team’s weekly press conference on Monday. “Without Laurence, he’s got to be the guy that we got to get more production out of on a consistent basis, particularly in the paint.”
Without Laurence Bowers — the team’s leading scorer with 16.8 points per game, Oriakhi knew he needed to step up.
Oriakhi provided what his coach asked for in Missouri’s 79-62 win over Georgia. He was 5-for-5 from the field for 13 points and eight rebounds.
Oriakhi said he had an easier time dealing with the increased workload against Georgia. He struggled in Missouri’s last contest against Ole Miss. In that game, he had only four points and six rebounds.
“It’s definitely something I’m getting used to, especially being the main focal point down low,” Oriakhi said.
Bowers remains out of the lineup with a sprained MCL in his right knee that has sidelined him for Missouri’s past two games. Missouri will have to rely on a committee of scorers during Bowers’ absence. Not just Oriakhi.
The Tigers received that production against Georgia, as Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross both had a team-high 15 points.
Haith said he’s happy to see Brown drive toward the basket more and not just camp out at the 3-point line.
“That’s important for him to continue to do that because people are going to run him off the 3-point line,” he said. “You saw Jabari really attack and get to the free-throw line.”
And Ross may have been Missouri’s toughest player against Georgia. When he attempted to go up for an offensive rebound in the second half, he was fouled and toppled to the ground. Ross landed on his back with a thud. The crowd at Mizzou Arena went silent while trainers attended to Ross.
The hulking forward got up after the hard hit and made a free throw.
Oriakhi’s efforts against Georgia couldn’t only be measured on the stat sheet, however. He also displayed the part of his game that can provide an emotional lift for his teammates.
After Georgia forward Nemanja Djurisic drove toward the basket and released a shot, Oriakhi swatted the ball away with his right hand. He turned toward the Missouri student section and unleashed a load roar.
At times, though, Oriakhi’s emotions can get him in trouble. In Missouri’s loss against Ole Miss, he chirped at the referees repeatedly, showing his frustration after first half foul trouble kept him off the court.
Haith said he talked to Oriakhi before Wednesday’s game about keeping his composure.
With Oriakhi, it would seem like a delicate balance. Missouri’s players and coaches want him to play with emotion but don’t want him to step over the line, like he did against Ole Miss.
Oriakhi seemed to be more in control of his emotions against Georgia, even joking with the referee under the basket after he made what Oriakhi deemed to be a correct foul call.
He attempted to give the referee a high-five for calling a foul against Georgia. The referee choose not to slap Oriakhi’s hand, something the 6-foot-9 senior forward joked about after the game.
“I’m just trying to get on (the referees’) good side,” Oriakhi said of the congratulatory gesture. “I haven’t been there lately.”
He passed it off as a funny moment in the game.
Missouri had to feel a little fortunate to come away with a victory on a night when its point guard had perhaps his worst performance of the season. Junior guard Phil Pressey struggled for most of the night; he had a modest five points and six assists.
Missouri’s players know there will be nights when Pressey struggles and they need to step up, Brown said.
“We know Phil is a big play maker and leader for us,” he said. “We just tried to pick up the slack, make good decisions and trust in the offense.”
Missouri continues to search for its secondary point guard behind Pressey.
Haith said he was pleased with how his team responded with Pressey on the bench.
“It’s extremely important for us moving forward,” he said. “We’ve been practicing a lot with Keion at (point guard).”
More importantly, Missouri’s guards drove the ball toward the basket in an effort to draw fouls and shoot more free throws, something they didn’t do against Ole Miss.
Missouri had only six free throw attempts against Ole Miss but had 25 Wednesday night against Georgia.
“Georgia was definitely playing aggressive and fouling and guys took advantage of that,” Oriakhi said.
Missouri will look to continue to play aggressively as it continues the conference season on Saturday. The Tigers (13-3, 2-1 SEC) play No. 10 Florida in Gainesville, Fla., at 1 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN.
As for whether or not Bowers will be a part of that effort, that’s still unknown.