COLUMBIA — Senior forward Alex Oriakhi remembers what happened to Missouri on Jan. 19, and he’s definitely not the only one.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
The Tigers were in Gainesville, Fla., playing the Florida Gators in what amounted to Missouri’s third road game of the year. Both teams were ranked at the time, making the result, an 83-52 loss at the O’Connell Center, even more embarrassing for the Tigers.
“They kicked our butts,” Oriakhi admitted with a laugh on Monday. “I’m not going to lie to you, we want revenge. We obviously want to show we’re one of the best teams in America.”
That day, the Tigers simply weren’t in the Gators’ class. And judging by the rankings — Missouri, 18-7 overall and 7-5 in the Southeastern Conference, is unranked in the AP poll while Florida, 21-3 overall and 11-1 in the SEC, is ranked fifth — some would say that still appears to be the case.
However, tonight’s game is at Mizzou Arena, where the Tigers have practically been invincible since 2008, racking up an 81-4 mark (including a 14-0 record this season). So if revenge is what the Tigers want, well, there’s no better place to get it.
“We want redemption,” Oriakhi said.
Getting it will start, quite literally, with a fast start. In Gainesville, the Tigers, who were missing leading scorer Laurence Bowers, were lethargic, falling behind by double-digits just minutes into the game.
Junior point guard Phil Pressey attributed that to the Tigers’ lack of experience playing together in hostile environments. Pressey is the only returnee from last year’s 30-5 team.
“We had some new guys on the road, that was our first tough environment — they (the fans) were very loud,” Pressey said. “We learned from it.”
Pressey also struggled, scoring only two points with six assists while turning the ball over 10 times, thanks in large part to the defense of Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who harassed him all game long and led Florida’s pressing defensive attack.
“They pressured Phil a lot on the pick and rolls — they know that getting the ball out of his hands is the best thing they can do,” Oriakhi said. “They did a good job of it.”
Pressey admitted Monday that he tried to do too much in that game, but he should have some help tonight. Most of the Tigers play better at home — at least, statistically — and senior guard Keion Bell has been a revelation of late, scoring off the dribble and being a pest on defense. Bell has also emerged as a solid ball-handler, someone who has successfully initiated Missouri’s offense in stretches where Pressey has been on the bench.
That wasn’t the case the first time Florida and Missouri played.
“Keion,” Oriakhi said, ”has been playing his tail off.”
Missouri will need Bell to keep it up tonight against a Florida squad that Missouri coach Frank Haith calls one of the best teams — if not the best — in the country.
“We have to be on point in all facets of the game,” Haith said. “They really share the ball, have a great feel for each other, and you have to be terrific on rotations and limit them to one shot because they’re pretty good at rebounding.”
Offensively, Haith says Missouri simply needs to make some tough shots, much like Arkansas did in an 80-69 win over the Gators.
“You’re going to have to make some shots because they’re not going to beat themselves,” said Haith, who is impressed by the way Florida rotates on defense.
One other positive Missouri can take from that game, other than the fact it proved Florida could be beaten by another SEC team: it was at Arkansas’ Bud Walton Arena, which happens to be a tough environment for opponents, not unlike Mizzou Arena.
Oriakhi hopes the Tigers are ready to feed off the crowd’s energy from the start.
“Anytime we come out to slow starts or dig ourselves in a hole, we’re not able to get out of it,” Oriakhi said. “So as long as we keep our energy up and keep ourselves in the game in the beginning, we’ll be fine.”
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.