Roughly 10 minutes into their rematch with Louisiana State on Saturday, the Missouri Tigers found themselves in a rather unfamiliar position at home.
Trailing. By 13 points. At Mizzou Arena, where they entered with a perfect 15-0 mark this season.
“Our defense from the three-point line wasn’t very good,” said Missouri coach Frank Haith.
Indeed, at that point Missouri had allowed LSU to shoot 6-for-8 from three-point range, largely due to sluggish defensive rotations and a tendency to go under ball screens. And LSU guard Anthony Hickey made them pay, scoring 17 of his team-high 22 points by the break.
However, there’s a reason Missouri has proven to be invincible at home this season, and it has to do with its high-powered, diverse offense. And led by senior forward Laurence Bowers, who scored a game-high 23 points, the Tigers again displayed an efficient inside-out game as it rallied from a 13-point first half deficit to come away with an 89-76 victory before an announced crowd of 14,212 at Mizzou Arena.
“There’s not a 13-point shot, we can’t go out here and start wailing away,” said Haith, whose team trailed 25-12 with 10 minutes, 28 seconds left in the first half.
But what they could do is pound LSU down low, and that’s exactly what Missouri did as it rallied to outscore LSU 31-14 the rest of the half and take a 43-39 lead into the break. Bowers, who finished the first half with 11 points and seven rebounds, tortured his defender with an array of jumpers that stretched the defense, while senior forward Alex Oriakhi bullied his man down low to the tune of six points and four rebounds by halftime.
“That’s just who we are,” said Oriakhi, who finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds. “Me and Laurence are pretty good down low…lots of credit goes to the guards who are finding us.”
Together, Oriakhi and Bowers ultimately helped Missouri outscore LSU 52-24 in the paint, which became crucial when MU finally started to take away some of LSU’s open looks from long distance by doing a better job of fighting its way through ball screens.
“They did a great job controlling the paint,” said LSU coach Johnny Jones, whose team dropped to 17-10, 8-8 in the SEC. “We didn’t make the plays at the rim we needed to.”
Particularly during the second half, when Hickey — who made five threes in the first half — went 2-for-7 from the field. Senior guard Charles Carmouche picked up some of the slack, scoring 14 of his 21 points after the break, but it still wasn’t enough to overcome a Missouri team that opened the second half with a 24-15 run.
Missouri, which led by as many as 16, opened with five straight points from junior guard Phil Pressey and a momentum-building hustle play from Oriakhi, who blocked a LSU shot on one end, chased it down and saved it to a teammate, which eventually led to a three-point play by Jabari Brown that made the score 52-44.
Oriakhi and Bowers then combined to score nine of Missouri’s next 15 points as the Tigers built a 67-54 lead with around ten minutes left in the game. LSU eventually cut Missouri’s lead to 80-72 with a little under two minutes left, but a Pressey free throw, an Oriakhi layup and a Keion Bell slam (11 points) stretched the lead back to double figures, and LSU never got close again.
Pressey (15 points, eight assists, two turnovers) and junior guard Earnest Ross (13 points) also scored in double figures for Missouri, but afterward, plenty of talk centered around the play of Bowers, who scored the most points he has since he returned from a MCL sprain in his knee nine games ago.
“I just got lost in the game,” said Bowers, who also pulled down 10 rebounds. “Coach sent me a text this morning that said play free. I did and it really helped me.”
Oriakhi thought so, too. And in what is perhaps an indication of the good vibes swirling around the team now — Missouri improved to 21-8, 10-6 in the Southeastern Conference and has now won five of its last seven games — he was quite candid in his assessment of Bowers’ play in the postgame media session.
“Every time he had it in the post, I said ‘Go to work’ — I knew the guy that was guarding him in the post couldn’t really guard him,” said Oriakhi, whose comment drew a playful head shake from Haith that broke up the room with laughter.
Oriakhi started to backpedal — he obviously didn’t want to upset Haith, who was seated right next to him — but eventually circled back to his original comment.
“That’s what I think,” Oriakhi said with a grin. “Laurence is a good player, man. Not many guys can guard him.”
Oriakhi also drew a response from his coach when he admitted later than he just wanted revenge Saturday for the 73-70 road loss Missouri suffered to LSU in January, which caused Haith to joke that he might have to send Oriakhi to “Media Training 101.”
But while Haith might have preferred for Oriakhi to be a little less candid on Saturday, that’s about the only complaint he could have with the senior big man, who teamed up with Bowers to lead Missouri back against LSU and will once again be called upon to lead the Tigers against Arkansas and former coach Mike Anderson at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Mizzou Arena.
“That’s who we are, that is our identity — we have to have paint presence every night,” Haith said. “With Laurence and Alex, we got the kind of production that we need.”