Kleiza increases his contributions

Friday, December 24, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- Linas Kleiza says it after every game, but it was never more true than following a closer-than-expected 70-64 loss to top-ranked Illinois.

Missouri's sophomore forward 25 points and added seven rebounds and three assists Wednesday in the annual "Braggin' Rights" game in St. Louis. Afterward, he again noted the youth of the team, which has just one scholarship senior and whose leading scorers, Kleiza and Thomas Gardner, are sophomores.

"We're young, we're growing, we're taking steps," Kleiza said. "I'm just excited with what we can do. I think we can be very good."

The Tigers (6-5) are certainly better with big contributions from Kleiza. After scoring 15 of his 18 points during a second-half rally in a 56-53 win against Indiana on Sunday, Kleiza was the only Tiger to reach double digits against the Fighting Illini (11-0). He scored Missouri's first eight points and most of its important baskets down the stretch, ending with 25.

Although he has yet to find consistency with his jump shot, Kleiza credited his recent strong play to listening more to coach Quin Snyder.

"I really started buying into coach Q and what he has been saying," Kleiza said. "That helped me a lot, just getting to the line and taking good shots."

Driving to the basket and drawing contact has been Kleiza's best offense. He is 23-for-29, a 79 percent mark, from the free-throw line in the past two games, well above his 62 percent average of last season.

Snyder said Kleiza's improvement is connected to the Tigers being more willing to share the ball and run a balanced offense.

"The thing that we've really focused on is everybody getting touches and not being in a hurry to try to make a scoring play," Snyder said. "We had a better commitment to seeing the ball move and letting guys touch it."

That mindset has given Kleiza more opportunities. His 43 points the past two games dwarf the production of his teammates -- Marshall Brown's 19 points rank second. But Kleiza said he does not feel any extra pressure as the focal point of the offense.

"If the team needs me to take that role, I'm definitely going to do it," he said. "That's not a thing I'm concerned about, points and stuff. If it's going to come, it's going to come."

Kleiza had a strong start to his freshman season, scoring in double digits in four of his first five games. He dislocated his right shoulder at Colorado on Jan. 28, an injury that required surgery and ended his season. He averaged 11.1 points and 8.4 rebounds in 16 games off the bench.

Through Wednesday, Kleiza is averaging 17 points and 7.5 rebounds this season.

"It's something that he's working hard on and it's us collectively," Snyder said. "They're starting to understand the urgency of some of those little things, those intangible things that can really make a difference."

After surprising losses to Davidson and Houston in November, the Tigers have played more consistently this month. Storming back from a 17-point deficit to topple the Hoosiers gave Missouri some momentum, Kleiza said, and the effort against Illinois provided even more.

"We're taking big steps in the right direction," he said. "Nothing's ruined yet. We've still got a long way to go."

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