Story by Matthew Fairburn
Photos by Karen Mitchell
Keion Bell (5) cheers after a Missouri basket that help widen the first half lead over Vanderbilt. Missouri lead 49-20 at the half, going on to beat Vanderbilt 81-59 Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo. Photo by Karen Mitchell
beat Vanderbilt 81-59 Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo. Photo by Karen Mitchell
COLUMBIA — Maybe it was the distinct size advantage Missouri held down low. Maybe it was the return of Keion Bell, who had missed a week with a sprained ankle. Or maybe it was the fact that, for the first time in weeks, Missouri coach Frank Haith wasn’t staring down the barrel of NCAA allegations from his time at Miami.
Whatever the reason, the Missouri men’s basketball team came out energized in its 81-59 win over Vanderbilt in front of a sellout crowd of 15,061 at Mizzou Arena on Saturday.
“I will go to our defensive intensity in the first half,” Haith said after the game. “That was the key to our success. I thought it was our best game on that end of the court, and that really spurred us on the offensive end.”
The Commodores jumped out to an 11-8 lead, but the Tigers made sure it didn’t last. Missouri proceeded to go on a 38-4 run, spanning nearly 13 minutes of play.
Seven days after injuring his ankle in Missouri’s 31-point loss to Florida, Bell returned to action and claimed a spot in the Tigers’ starting lineup.
Bell got the Tigers started with a steal, giving him a clear lane to the basket. A few effortless strides later, Bell peaked over his shoulder and finished the play with a two-hand slam that sent a buzz throughout the crowd.
The week off served him well.
“Obviously it felt good to get back to action after sitting out,” Bell said. “The coaches have just been talking to me about energy for so long. That’s just what I try to bring on the defensive end and offensive end to motivate our guys and get us going.”
Alex Oriakhi, meanwhile, established himself in the paint, and Vanderbilt had no answer for the 6-foot-9-inch forward. Oriakhi collected eight of his 12 total rebounds in the first half, as the Tigers took a 24-7 rebound advantage and 49-20 lead to half time.
“Oriakhi was too much for us inside,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “He was a physical presence that we didn’t do very well with. Oriakhi’s a load in there and he had his way with us.”
The Tigers were without leading scorer Laurence Bowers for the fifth straight game. With Bowers out of the lineup, Oriakhi has had to shoulder more of the load, forcing the senior to develop into one of the team’s top weapons.
“I think it’s been healthy for him to be the go-to-guy,” Haith said. “We really made a concerted effort in the last two ball games to get him the ball in the post. I thought it showed.”
As if Missouri’s frantic on-the-ball defense and dominant low post play weren’t enough, the Tigers also found their stroke from 3-point land. Jabari Brown led the team with 21 points and made 50 percent of his 3-point shots. As a team, the Tigers shot 11 of 21 from deep, contributing to the lengthy first half run.
“It definitely feels good when guys are hitting shots and everything’s going your way,” Oriakhi said. “But we know what it feels like to be on the other end, so we have to focus on finishing the game strong.”
Despite a 16-4 run from Vanderbilt to open the second half, Missouri held on for its biggest win in more than a month.
The Tigers have battled injuries throughout the first half of the season, but Bell and Tony Criswell are both back in the lineup. The biggest missing link is still Bowers, who dressed for the first time since his injury on Saturday.
Haith said that Bowers probably could have played if he needed to, but the team didn’t see a need to push it.
“I really want him to be really comfortable,” Haith said. “We just have to weather the storm so to speak and get those guys feeling good.”
Missouri takes the floor again on Wednesday, Jan. 30 when it travels to Baton Rouge, La. to take on LSU. That game tips off at 7 p.m.
Fans cheer and Jabari Brown smiles after making a 3-point shot in the first half against Vanderbilt. Brown finished with a game-high 21 points.
Keion Bell (5) splits two Vanderbilt defenders on his way to the basket. Bell scored 12 points after sitting out for several games with an injured ankle.
Dai-Jon Parker, left, Jabari Brown (32) and Phil Pressey (1) scramble for the loose ball in the first half.
Keion Bell strips the ball from a Vanderbilt player, getting one of his three steals of the game.
Jabari Brown (32) drives to the basket past Vanderbilt’s Kyle Fuller (11). Brown finished with 21 points in the win over Vanderbilt.
Stefan Jankovic (35) goes up for the put-back in the second half.