The mood has lightened considerably around Mizzou Arena, at least where the Missouri men’s basketball team is concerned.
The Tigers punctuated an emotional Saturday, which included the “Rally for Rhyan” game that raised more than $50,000 for pediatric cancer research, by dispatching Tennessee 75-64.
It was only Mizzou’s second win in Southeastern Conference play and snapped a nine-game losing streak.
Tasting victory for the first time in five weeks reinvigorated the Tigers.
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“There was a little more pep in their step, as (senior forward Ryan) Rosburg would say,” second-year Missouri coach Kim Anderson said of the mood since beating the Volunteers. “I think they felt good about being able to beat a good team like Tennessee and finish the game. That was a big thing. We’ve had some games where we’ve been close, but then we haven’t been able to finish. There was a little more energy (Sunday) than maybe I’d seen in the past couple of weeks.”
Now, the Tigers, 9-16 overall and 2-10 in the SEC, hope to avoid a letdown as they return to Norm Stewart Court at 6 p.m. Tuesday for a showdown with South Carolina, 21-4 and 8-4 in conference.
“Hopefully, having some success will carry over and I’ve proclaimed it ‘Rally for Rhyan Game No. 2’ on Tuesday,” Anderson said. “I don’t think everybody gets in free with a donation, but I’m going to tell my guys it’s ‘Rally for Rhyan Game 2.’ ”
It’s probably not going to be possible to channel the exact same emotion, which reached a crescendo when assistant coach Brad Loos spoke to the team about his 5-year-old daughter’s battle with stage-four neuroblastoma.
Before the Tennessee game, Loos told the Tigers:
“The last four months, we’ve been sitting in a hospital room watching her suffer, for lack of a better word. What gets us through as a family is the fact that we know she is going to get better, she is going to beat cancer. There’s no doubt in any of our minds that it’s going to happen. That gives us that fearlessness. That gives us the confidence to go fight the next day, because there’s bad days. To get through those bad days you’ve got to have confidence in knowing there’s going to be a positive result on the end of that — and we do know that.”
Loos then laid down the gauntlet.
“I told those guys, ‘If you want to do something for Rhyan, go out there and play with that same fearlessness, knowing that you’re going to win today,’” he said. “It definitely showed, because they came out today with that confidence and that fearlessness that we haven’t seen in a quite a while.”
Missouri grabbed a rare early lead and rode the swells of emotion from a season-best crowd of 10,536 to a much-needed victory. It’ll be tougher against South Carolina, but the same fearless mindset and playing with an early lead again would be a good place to start in search of an upset.
“We still had our little droughts here and there, but we overcame that and stayed with each other …,” freshman guard Terrence Phillips said. “It felt great (to play with a lead), honestly. We’re getting tired of playing from behind. It takes a lot of work coming from behind.”
The Tigers put together one of their better road performances of the season in an 81-72 loss Jan. 16 against the Gamecocks in Columbia, S.C.
Junior Wes Clark scored a career-high 26 in that game, which also featured 12 points from Rosburg on 6 of 6 shooting.
It’s a chance for Missouri to play spoiler against a South Carolina that is one game out of first in the SEC, which is about the only thing Anderson’s squad can do considering the postseason ban.