MU hopeful 20th victory will wrap up NCAA berth

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

COLUMBIA, Mo.-- Winning 20 games could be enough to smooth out the bumps in Missouri's season and secure an NCAA bid.

The Tigers took a big step toward a third straight tournament berth under coach Quin Snyder and fourth straight overall by beating No. 12 Oklahoma State 72-69 Monday night, recovering from a 10-point first-half deficit and then holding off a late challenge.

They've stumbled badly since a 9-0 start that elevated them to No. 2 in the country, getting zero votes in the poll this week. But then again they reached 20 victories the fastest since 1993-94 when they were unbeaten in the Big Eight.

They're also 4-4 against Top 25 competition and have three of the Big 12's seven victories against ranked non-conference opponents.

"I think we were a tournament team before this win," forward Kareem Rush said. "We're 9-6 in the toughest conference in the country."

Snyder is hoping 20 is the magic number for the Tigers (20-9, 9-6 Big 12), who have one game to go in the regular season -- a matchup against No. 1 Kansas at home on Sunday.

In the short history of the Big 12, every team that has won at least 19 games and finished with a better than .500 conference record has advanced to the NCAA tournament. Missouri made it last year with 19 victories and a 9-7 conference record and with 18 victories and a 10-6 Big 12 record in 1999-2000.

"I have my opinion, but the tournament committee, they know what they're doing," Snyder said. "I hope they look at our league. There are so many teams up top, we're clawing to get to that level.

"There are also plenty of good teams below us that we have to watch out for."

Missouri entered the week with a so-so RPI of 57, but that number will go up after Monday's victory. There's another golden opportunity to move up against Kansas, also No. 1 in the RPI, and Snyder points to games against Alabama, Iowa (twice) and Virginia.

"I know our RPI is not as low as some," Snyder said. "I know we've played a tough schedule."

The keys to the victory over Oklahoma State were rebounding and a general willingness to mix it up. Missouri had a 42-32 advantage on the boards and was more tenacious than usual, fighting for loose balls durings its comeback from a 10-point first-half deficit.

Arthur Johnson had 18 points and 14 rebounds, his 10th double double of the season, and showed more competitiveness inside than in recent games. Travon Bryant had one of his stronger games inside with six rebounds.

"We were hungry on the glass," Snyder said.

A big plus was the play of Rickey Paulding, who had 21 points on 10-of-12 shooting. Paulding led Missouri down the stretch, scoring nine straight points in one sequence and then adding two baskets in the final minute.

Paulding hasn't let a tough game against Texas, in which he missed two late free throws and then stepped out of bounds to kill Missouri's last chance in a two-point loss, linger. With Rush and Clarence Gilbert struggling, going a combined 6-for-28, Paulding filled the void, adding three steals and five rebounds.

"I can't say enough about Rickey," Snyder said. "For Kareem and Clarence the shots weren't falling, so Rickey stepped up."

Missouri also overcame 20 turnovers, 12 of them in the first half.

"We still have to take better care of the basketball," Snyder said. "It's deflating when we throw it away.

"I do feel like we've gotten better in January and February and I hope we can get better in March, too."

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