Mizzou defense swarms in to save the day
Such descriptions might be considered mere coaching buzzwords. But with the way that Missouri coach Mike Anderson's team has been playing this season, the veteran coach's narrative matches what exactly what he's trying to do.
The Tigers aren't a pretty team and will never be considered one. Instead, they are a squad that's a testament to frustration of opponents along with their own squeaky tennis shoes and floor burns from their own gritty efforts.
Their 67-59 victory over Oklahoma State in Friday night's Big 12 semifinal game was exactly that kind of game. The Tigers overcame their own miserable shooting to make the Cowboys shoot even worse through the sheer frustrating will of their defense.
The Tigers' sputtering offense shot only 37.5 percent and scored only 21 points in the first half. But they trumped that by limiting the Cowboys to season lows in points scored and 3-point shooting (16.7 percent).
"It wasn't a thing of beauty, but sometimes ugly is better for us," Anderson said.
It was a far cry from last season, when the Tigers finished 16-16 and limped home in 10th place in the Big 12. Even worse, they sometimes lollygagged on defense, which is exactly what an Anderson-coached team can never afford to do.
That inspired a new mindset coming into the season that has sparked one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent Big 12 history. The Tigers are ranked 15th nationally and their 27-6 record is their most wins in a season since Norm Stewart claimed his final Big Eight regular-season championship in 1994.
"We keep talking about the thing that we are going to hang our hats on is our defense," Anderson said. "Offense can come and go, and it definitely went tonight. But the thing we will do is continue to play defense."
The Tigers already have set a school single-season record for steals and seem intent on building that total over at least two more games this season. They are second nationally in swipes and rank third in turnover margin. Their on-ball defense gradually wore down the Cowboys, forcing them into their worst offensive effort of the season. OSU clanked its first 16 3-point attempts before Obi Muonelo hit the Cowboys' first trey of the game with 6:14 remaining.
"It definitely affects us when we are not making our 3s," OSU forward Marshall Moses said. "We have big-time 3-point shooters on our team and that's a big part of what we do."
The Cowboys never seemed to get in a groove offensively against the feisty Tigers' pressure after OSU senior point guard Byron Eaton left the floor with a sprained toe with 9:32 left in the first half. Eaton returned later in the game but was a shell of his normal self as he missed all seven shots and had eight of the Cowboys' 17 turnovers.
Friday's contest was a far cry from a 97-95 Missouri victory over the Cowboys on Jan. 21 in Stillwater. The Tigers almost squandered a 20-point second-half lead in the latter stages of the game in one of their worst defensive efforts of the season.
"Coach has been using that as motivation for us all week," Missouri senior forward DeMarre Carroll said. "That's all he talked about was not wanting to have something like that happen again."
Understand that Anderson can be persuasive with his team, particularly in his practice sessions.
"For us, our games are a break from practice," Missouri junior guard Zaire Taylor said. "If you ever experienced one of Coach A's practices, you'd understand when a game comes why it's a break for us. It's just intense, nonstop running."
That conditioning particularly pays off in tournament games, when the Tigers can throw waves of players at opponents. Eleven players saw action against Oklahoma State after 14 played against Texas Tech on Thursday night.
"Fatigue factors into our success and this kind of tournament plays right into our hands because of the number of people we play," Taylor said.
And it might help them again Saturday in the championship game against Baylor, which will be trying to make history as the first team in conference history to win four tournament games en route to a championship.
Missouri beat Baylor 89-72 on Jan. 31 in Columbia in the only previous meeting between the two teams this season. That was when the Bears were in the throes of their miserable slump early in Big 12 play. Despite the final margin, Mizzou led by only one point with 5:31 left before a late charge.
The resurgent Bears are a different team from that point earlier in the season. But the Tigers have something to play for, too.
"We are going to try to stop what they are doing because we know their guards have been hot," Missouri senior forward Leo Lyons said. "We witnessed it before. But this is a chance for us to show where our team is now compared to the past years."