Missouri’s locker room was abuzz Tuesday after a victory against Florida, but there was uncertainty mixed with the excitement.
“It was kind of weird, because we haven’t felt a win in a long time,” sophomore Johnathan Williams III said. “We didn’t really know what to do.”
The Tigers, 8-20 overall and 2-13 in the Southeastern Conference, hadn’t tasted victory since Jan. 8, an overtime win against LSU in the conference opener.
Before topping the Gators, MU had gone nearly seven weeks without a win and endured 13 straight defeats, a record for most consecutive losses in program history.
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Williams and his Missouri teammates might not have been accustomed to the winning postgame locker room feeling, but they wouldn’t mind getting used to it.
“I just smiled and laughed at it,” Williams said. “We’ve got to get another one Saturday.”
The Tigers face a tough road test at 11 a.m. Saturday against Georgia, 18-9 overall and 9-6 in the SEC, but there’s renewed confidence and enthusiasm after returning to the win column.
That is especially true for Missouri’s five freshmen.
“Hopefully, our guys will respond and feel good about what happened the other night and we can build on that and finish the season with a little momentum,” first-year coach Kim Anderson said.
Anderson believes Missouri’s freshman have battled back after hitting a wall earlier in the month.
“You hit a wall, and you’re trying to find something positive,” Anderson said. “Finally, something good happened the other day. (Freshman guard) Namon (Wright) had a tremendous game, but I thought the other freshmen played pretty well too.”
Wright powered the Tigers’ win against Florida with a career-high 28 points, including six three-pointers.
“I was really encouraged by the fact that guys were trying to find him, trying to get him good shots and he knocked them down,” Anderson said. “It’s great for him, because he’s worked hard. He’s worked extra with our coaching staff, and it’s good to see that pay off.”
Wright is not the only freshman who’s shown improvement.
Anderson also singled out freshman forward Jakeenan Gant, who was suspended for the season’s first nine games as MU investigated his NCAA eligibility.
“Jakeenan Gant has improved tremendously over the last month, and maybe you don’t see it as much in a game, but I see it every day in practice … ” Anderson said during Thursday’s news conference. “Jakeenan’s big emphasis lately has been just trying to get stronger. That takes time. That’s going to be next year before that happens. … (but) he’s doing everything he can. It just takes time for his body to get it done.”
Defense probably has been the toughest adjustment for the Tigers’ freshman. College is a more physical game and they are asked to guard better athletes and more polished scorers than they had a the high school level.
“As the games go on, you learn more and more how to do things right, especially defense for me,” Wright said. “I think I’ve learned that I can be a really good defender. I just have to do certain things.”
Gant is in the same boat. He is learning to use his quickness more after realizing he couldn’t out-muscle players in the post.
Now, he compensates with his activity, but it still can be tough “getting around the defenders and people that are wide,” he said. “But I try.”
Missouri’s more experienced players see and appreciate the effort.
“I’ve seen them putting a lot of shots up before practice and after practice,” Williams said. “I see them putting the work in each and every day. I knew one day it was going to pay off, sooner or later.”