PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas — Missouri coach Frank Haith stood in front of his players on Thursday, ready to speak some truth. It was halftime of MU’s Battle 4 Atlantis tournament game against Stanford, and although the Tigers led by three, it should have been more.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
At that point, Stanford had been struggling to shoot three-pointers — making only four of 15 from downtown — and was also losing the turnover battle 10-6. But the Cardinal was outrebounding the Tigers and winning the hustle plays, so the game remained close.
“I go back to our identity,” said Haith, who remains without two of his best offensive weapons: high-scoring guards Michael Dixon Jr. and Jabari Brown. “We’re not going to be fluid right now offensively, but we are going to be tough — and that’s what we challenged them to do.”
His team listened, apparently, as a renewed commitment to battling for loose balls, taking charges and rebounding — not to mention clutch efforts by veterans Phil Pressey and Laurence Bowers — made the difference in MU’s 78-70 win before an announced crowd of 3,217 at Imperial Arena.
“We only had three offensive rebounds in the first half. We finished with 19,” said Haith, whose squad outrebounded Stanford 43-39. “That’s a big part of who we are.”
Some of that is out of necessity. Dixon remains suspended for a violation of team rules. Brown, a jump-shooting transfer from Oregon, won’t be available until late December. Both could help MU space the floor and add scoring to an offense that has gone stagnant at times and returns only one starter (Pressey) from last year’s 30-5 team.
But the absence of both players is clearly not an excuse for losing. Neither is poor shooting (MU shot only 31.6 percent from the field in the second half and 36.6 percent for the game).
“It’s all about effort,” said senior center Alex Oriakhi. “Coach stressed at halftime that we definitely have to rebound. … It’s something we had to do because we weren’t making shots.”
MU led by as many as 12 at one point in the first half, only to see Stanford, 3-2, go on a 12-0 run to tie the score at 28-28. Haith said the Tigers took some plays off during the run, but MU closed the half with a flurry to take a 37-34 lead into the break.
The game remained close throughout the second half, with Stanford briefly taking the lead before falling behind 66-61 with a little under six minutes left. It was at that point that Bowers and Pressey went to work, scoring ten of Missouri’s final 12 points to help the Tigers improve to 4-0.
“The second half, that’s when you put a team away,” Bowers said.
Pressey opened the run with a pair of free throws — the Tigers went 22 of 25 from the charity stripe in the game — and Bowers followed with a jumper. MU then got a huge stop on Stanford’s next possession, when freshman Negus Webster-Chan — who finished one of seven from the field but still played the majority of the second half in place of struggling starter Keion Bell (he committed a team-high five turnovers) — took MU’s third charge of the game.
“That’s execution,” Haith said.
Missouri scored on its next possession when Pressey found Oriakhi (13 points) for a layup to make the score 72-66. Stanford answered with a basket, and Pressey proceeded to drive to the hole, only to get his shot blocked.
Fortunately for the Tigers, Bowers — who scored 13 of his 19 points after halftime and also grabbed 10 rebounds — was right there to clean it up, laying the ball in to keep the Tigers ahead by six with 43 seconds remaining.
“He’s a senior. He’s been here before, and he knows what it takes down the stretch,” Pressey said.
Pressey, who filled the stat sheet with 18 points, eight assists, five rebounds and four steals, took care of the rest, making four free throws to ice the game.
With the win, Missouri advances to today’s semifinal round, and will face Louisville at 8:30 p.m.
Haith was optimistic Missouri won’t turn in another woeful three-point shooting performance (four of 19 against Stanford) in the semifinals, but even if it does, it doesn’t hurt the Tigers to know they’ve already proved they can win by playing defense, rebounding and doing the little things.
“That’s who we are at this point in time,” Haith said. “It’s all about understanding who you are and buying into that.”
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.