Tigers have new outlook after win

Sunday, January 2, 2005

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Missouri players are starting to feel this won't be a lost season, after all.

After scuffling through an early season that included losses to Davidson, Creighton and Houston in succession, the Tigers appear to be finally putting things together. The last three games, capped by a gritty 63-61 victory over No. 21 Gonzaga on Thursday night, have been by far their best.

Beating Gonzaga gave Missouri (7-5) a winning record heading into January and the Big 12 schedule. Before that, the Tigers were impressive in a six-point loss to top-ranked Illinois and rallied from a 17-point second half deficit to beat Indiana by three points.

"If we want to have a real postseason, this is our first real step," guard Jason Conley said. "We did it, so it felt good."

Missouri coach Quin Snyder said the victory against Gonzaga (10-2), amazingly accomplished while scoring only two points in the final 8:27, validated Missouri's scare against Illinois because the effort was repeated.

"We showed ourselves that sometimes you do something and it's what you do," Snyder said. "The more you do it consistently, it becomes who you are.

"We've got to do it again. We've got to do it again."

Missouri has one more nonconference opponent to hone its game, at home against American on Tuesday, before starting conference play Jan. 8 against Iowa State.

"We haven't, like, arrived," Snyder said. "We scored 63 points and we found a way to win and I think it is a step for us. It shows you when you play a team like Gonzaga, what work you have to do."

Defense was the key at the end. Missouri missed its last 10 shots and finished 2-for-8 at the free-throw line down the stretch. Plus, leading scorer Linas Kleiza played only 21 minutes due to foul trouble and finished with 11 points, well below his 16.5-point average.

But Gonzaga scored only 10 points in the final 8:27, and the Tigers held Ronny Turiaf to 2-for-15 shooting.

"We missed a lot of free throws down the stretch, and we've got to get better at that," Missouri guard Jimmy McKinney said. "But they didn't score, either.

"We're making it tough for them and that's how it's got to be."

Missouri is 16-38 against Top 25 competition in six seasons under Snyder. It was the school's first victory over a ranked team since beating No. 6 Oklahoma State 93-92 in double overtime Feb. 24, 2004.

The Tigers are 7-2 in the new Mizzou Arena and played Thursday before a record crowd of 14,675 -- also the all-time record at the school. There still hasn't been a sellout in the building, which seats a little more than15,000, but players say it's starting to feel like home.

"When we came out for layup lines in warmups, I looked up on the side we shoot on and I was amazed," Conley said. "I don't think we've ever filled up that side before.

"As the game went on, I looked around and I didn't see an empty seat."

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