Pictured: Atlantis. Not pictured: basketball battles for it.
The Missouri Tigers
spent their Thanksgiving night in the Bahamas, playing in the ridiculously-named Battle 4 Atlantis
tournament, engaged in an opening round scrum with the Stanford Cardinal
. It was a surprisingly tough test for the thirteenth ranked Tigers, but the night ended well for them, as Mizzou was able to take home a 78-70 victory.
The Tigers now move on to the semifinals tonight where they will meet Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals, who beat Northern Iowa 51-46 last night. It presents the Tigers with a brutal test, and the rest of us with a rare opportunity, to see Mizzou matched up against an absolutely elite opponent so early in the season.
In beating Stanford, Mizzou leaned heavily on its two star players, as well as some solid free-throw work, and in doing so demonstrated exactly how this team will want to win most nights.
Laurence Bowers was the unquestioned star of the second half, throwing down 13 of his 19 points on the night after halftime and imposing his will on the Cardinal down low, establishing his presence on the boards. The second half heroics continued an odd pattern for Bowers so far this season, as he came into the game yesterday averaging 15.5 points per game, but 14 of those in the second halves. Not that I'm complaining, mind you; you take what the player gives you when you can get it, and having Bowers strong in the back half of the game, shutting down the opposition, is certainly better than watching him come out fast and wear down late in the game, forcing you to worry about his health. Still, it's odd to see him so quiet in the first half night after night, then flip the switch and dominate in the second.
The closer of the game, though, was Phil Pressey, who scored the final four points of the game for the Tigers and helped hold off a late press by Stanford. He was also, somewhat unsurprisingly, the star of the first half for the Tigers. Pressey is averaging 16.0 points per games on the young season, a surprisingly high total considering his usual game focuses more on ball distribution than scoring on his own, but perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised.
Pressey showed much more willingness to simply take over a game himself late last season, putting up some of his biggest scoring games down the stretch for the Tigers and often serving as the team's de facto closer, much like last night. Combine that with a team whose chemistry is still coming into focus, and perhaps it should be expected for Pressey to do more of the heavy lifting on his own, at least for the moment.
Aside from the performances of its two stars, there was plenty to like about Mizzou's win, even if the team as a whole didn't have one of the better shooting days we've seen in recent memory. Guard Earnest Ross and forward Alex Oriakhi both had solid games, Ross in particular, as the junior snatched 11 rebounds -- 7 of those of the offensive variety -- and scored 10, giving him his second double-double of the season. Oriakhi did his best work at the free throw line, going 7 of 8 from the charity stripe even as the team as a whole struggled from the field.
In fact, the free throws may very well have been the story of the night. Mizzou didn't shoot the ball particularly well from the floor, but made 22 of 25 attempts from the line, allowing them to put points on the board nonetheless. Success at the line could be huge for this team this season, which lacks the kind of pyrotechnic shooting ability of last year's squad, but will do much, much more of their scoring down low in the paint. You put bodies under the basket, and the fouls are going to come. How well the big men for Missouri can convert those fouls into point could go a long way toward determining how they ultimately fare.
Tonight's game against Louisville should look significantly different. Rick Pitino teams play notoriously tough defense, and the goal of the Cardinals will be to keep their opponents on the low side of the half-century mark. The Tigers have the size and strength to force the issue against Louisville, and Bowers is likely going to have to have a big night again. If there's any way Michael Dixon could get back on the court (though I don't believe that's possible, unfortunately), he could be a difference maker as well; Mizzou simply has to shoot better to have a real chance against Louisville than they did against Stanford. Ross could have a huge game after an extremely cold shooting performance; in fact, I'm just going to call it right now.
If the Tigers can pull the upset (and I'm not predicting anything; we've all seen how shitty my predictions always turn out), Earnest Ross will be the star of the game.