Before his weary and battered team took the floor for the Big 12 tournament championship game Saturday, Missouri coach Frank Haith implored them to dig deep just one more time.
“I told them, ‘I know you’re not a hundred percent,’ ” Haith remembered saying. “’But if you’re 80 percent, give me 100 percent of your 80 percent.’”
The message was directed at seniors Kim English, Marcus Denmon and Matt Pressey, all of whom were battling various ailments. All three heeded Haith’s call, as English scored 19 points, Denmon had 15 and Pressey played his usual lockdown defense in a 90-75 win over Baylor at the Sprint Center.
“We’re playing pretty good right now, no question,” Haith said.
Now, the Tigers are focused on keeping it going. Saturday’s game was the Tigers’ third game in three days, which Haith said is pretty good preparation for the kind of turnaround the Tigers hope to deal with the next several weeks in the NCAA Tournament. If Missouri, which is a No. 2 seed in the West, beats 15th-seeded Norfolk State at 3:40 p.m. Friday at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., it will face Florida or Virginia on Sunday.
That makes for a one-day break between games, which could be a problem with Pressey and Denmon battling sprained ankles and English’s sore quad. But three had the same ailments Saturday, when the Tigers waxed the floor with a red-hot Baylor team despite a thin rotation in which only seven Tigers regularly play.
“We played three games in three days with seven guys, and on that last day we played about as well as we’ve played,” Haith said. “So that’s pretty exciting”
It’s not a coincidence the Tigers looked so fresh Saturday, either. Haith has maintained all season long that he has avoided long, grueling practices because he knew that with so few scholarship players, it could catch up to them about this time.
Assistant coach Ernie Nestor said, after a light day Sunday, that the Tigers only lifted weights Monday. And after a light workout Thursday, he expects the team to have another light workout Saturday, provided they beat Norfolk State.
“He’s done an excellent job of balancing that and realizing what he has,” Nestor said. “Basketball is a tournament sport and you need to be your best in March.”
Nestor said that can be difficult for some teams, due to a number of factors — injuries, among them. And while the Tigers have a few players nicked up, Haith said it doesn’t hurt that Missouri is starting the tournament Friday instead of Thursday, like some other teams.
“It gives us time to those guys healed up,” Haith said. “We’re 34 games into it. That’s a lot of games and a lot of minutes logged by these guys.”
And just like their coach, the seniors are hopeful better things are on the horizon. They know the stakes — it’s win or go home — and with a chance to rest this week, they wholeheartedly believe they’ll be ready.
“This tournament coming up,” said senior guard Matt Pressey, “I think people will see our best basketball.”