Conley finally finds his niche

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- For both Missouri and guard Jason Conley, it might be a case of better late than never.

The underachieving Tigers climbed above .500 with their best overall performance of the season in a 34-point blowout against UNLV on Sunday. Conley, the transfer who was curiously quiet most of his first two months in uniform, played a pivotal role.

Missouri's offense clicked when Conley ran the point, a problem position for the Tigers all season. He pressed the attack and kept the ball moving with seven assists, yet still had time to score 17 points on 5-for-9 shooting from 3-point range, grab eight rebounds and pick the Rebels clean for five steals.

It was Conley's best point production since his debut at Missouri, a 19-point effort against North Carolina-Greensboro in December, and it came against much better competition. It also perhaps signaled the belated arrival of the player Missouri anticipated when Conley, who led the nation with a 29-point average as a freshman at VMI, decided to change schools.

"We've been short on feel at times this year, and I think he's got a nice feel for the game, and that's helping our guys," Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. "Jason's unselfish, too. He can score the ball but I think he enjoys passing it as well."

It's been a long time coming. After Conley's debut, he was scoreless in 23 minutes in a loss to Illinois, a game that began a long downward spiral.

During a five-game stretch that began in early January, his playing time was in single digits in four games and he didn't play at all in an overtime victory at Oklahoma. In the 13 games following his first game with the Tigers, Conley totaled a paltry 15 points on 5-for-32 shooting.

Snyder consistently faulted Conley's defense in his descent to a bit role, and Conley consistently kept his chin up and kept working. A mitigating factor was a three-week bout with illness during the slump.

Conley never complained, never second-guessed his decision to pick Missouri, and took all of his one-on-ones with Snyder to heart.

"He pulled me aside all the time and said this is what you've got to do," Conley said. "I would hear all this other stuff from people saying the coaches aren't doing this or that right, but he knew exactly what he was doing and I have total confidence in him and his staff."

One of the heart-to-hearts came after Conley dressed but didn't play at Oklahoma.

"I just told him 'You'll play, you've just got to earn it,' " Snyder said. "He was knocked out by strep throat. I think he's got his strength back and he's really worked on defending."

The last three games, the patience of both Snyder and Conley has been rewarded. Against UNLV, Conley's play made sophomore Jimmy McKinney, the Tigers' prize St. Louis recruit two years ago and the de facto starter at point guard, an afterthought.

For Conley, contributing to a win at this level feels better than all of his big games as a freshman.

"This is a lot more fun," Conley said. "If I would have had five points, that's fine with me."

Missouri (11-10, 5-5 Big 12) has won consecutive games for the first time since a 3-0 start, a positive step for a team that has been a big disappointment since being ranked No. 3 in mid-December. The Tigers are hoping to ride that rare bit of momentum Wednesday night against Iowa State (14-7, 5-5), which is coming off a one-point upset of Texas on Saturday.

The Cyclones also beat Missouri 70-65 in Ames, Iowa on Jan. 7.

Missouri has six regular-season games left before the Big 12 tournament, and a chance to build a late-season NCAA Tournament resume if it can keep that UNLV feel.

Freshman guard Thomas Gardner is coming off a career-best 20 points and Arthur Johnson, the preseason Big 12 player of the year, is coming off his first 20-plus point game of the season.

"There's plenty of time left," Gardner said. "We're just taking it one game at a time and trying to control the things we can control, and that's how hard we can play and how we defend and rebound."

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