All the ingredients for a Missouri loss were certainly present on Saturday, long before the No. 21 Tigers even took the court against Mississippi at Mizzou Arena.
For one, Missouri would be playing for the second time in three days, only 38 hours after its road woes continued with a crushing road loss at Texas A&M on Thursday. What’s more, the Tigers definitely couldn’t afford a hangover of sorts against the Rebels, who blew them out in an earlier meeting this year in Oxford.
But what nobody could have known entering the rematch Saturday is that for all MU’s faults — and this Missouri team has its fair share of them — these Tigers also have something else, something that served them well in a convincing and somewhat eye-opening 98-79 victory.
A long, long, long memory.
“Yeah, we remembered that game,” said senior forward Alex Oriakhi, who was neutralized in a 64-49 loss to Ole Miss on Jan. 12. “So I told the guys before the game, take this personal. If you don’t take this personal, something’s wrong with you.”
The Tigers, quite clearly, took it personal. Oriakhi, the Tigers’ emotional 6-foot-9, 240-pound center, led the charge with a career-high 22 points and a season-high 18 rebounds. That was against the team that held him to four points and six rebounds the first time around, a game in which Missouri committed 19 turnovers and never came close to winning.
“I’m so proud of the way we handled ourselves (after) a tough loss,” said Missouri coach Frank Haith, who has been critical of his team’s offensive and defensive execution of late.
Things were different on Saturday, and it was evident from the start. Displaying the kind of energy they have lacked on the road, where the Tigers are 0-5 this season, they harassed Ole Miss on the defensive end. MU held the Rebels to 13-of-34 shooting (38.2 percent) and forced eight turnovers, all on steals, in the first half.
The Tigers, meanwhile, had no problems scoring in the first 20 minutes. Whether it was on putbacks (they outrebounded Ole Miss 24-15, including eight to five on the offensive glass), three-pointers (eight for 15) or on points off turnovers (Missouri had 12 to the Rebels’ 2), the Tigers took charge and were up 50-34 at the break. Guards Keion Bell and Jabari Brown led the way in the half with 12 points apiece.
“When somebody beats your (tail), you want revenge,” Oriakhi said. “So every time we were up (today) I told (my teammates) that, ‘We’re stepping on their neck and we’re not letting them up.’ ”
Oriakhi went out of his way to back up his words, carrying Missouri in the second half with 15 points and 13 rebounds, though he perhaps went too far at one point. With Missouri leading 80-58 with 7 minutes, 31 seconds left, Oriakhi appeared to trip Mississippi forward Reginald Buckner, who then rose, approached Oriakhi and appeared to shove the referee, who tried to get in between them.
Senior forward Laurence Bowers, who came to Oriakhi’s defense, said he was hit by Buckner with an open hand. Buckner was ejected while Oriakhi was assessed a flagrant and Bowers was assessed a technical.
Oriakhi sat on the bench for a few minutes to cool down, but when he returned, he added six points and five rebounds in 3 1/2 minutes for the Tigers, who never let Mississippi get closer than 17 the rest of the way.
“It really got him going,” Bowers said of Oriakhi. “We just need that from Alex all the time.”
The same can be said of junior point guard Phil Pressey, who also scored 22 points. Although he finished nine of 23 (39 percent) from the field, Saturday’s outing was a redemptive effort of sorts for Pressey, who turned the ball over only once and also had four assists. That gave him 499 assists for his career, which surpassed Anthony Peeler’s previous mark of 497 for No. 1 all time in school history.
“I just want to shatter (the record) so nobody can touch it,” Pressey said with a laugh.
Shortly after the assist that broke the record — a pass to Brown for a jumper in the second half — the crowd of 14,013 rose to its feet to applaud Pressey, who was shown on the scoreboard while the announcement was made.
It was a nice moment for a gifted player who has recently caught some heat for his shot selection and sometimes out-of-control play. Against Texas A&M on Thursday, he committed a turnover and blew a defensive assignment in the last 30 seconds that contributed directly to the loss.
“He doesn’t get down on himself too often, but he was killing himself after the Texas A&M game,” Bowers said.
But, Bowers added, Pressey responded well Saturday. So did the rest of the Tigers. But they will soon find themselves needing to rise to the occasion again.
MU has back-to-back road tests at Mississippi State and Arkansas coming up — and four of the next five games on the road. And March is right around the corner, after all.
“If your back is against the wall, what are you going to do?” Oriakhi said afterward. “Are you going to sit there and give up? Or are you going to scratch, fight and do whatever you’ve got to do to get out of the situation you’re in? I always say, adversity finds everybody, every team. It’s all about how you bounce back, man.”