Dealt a neutral site challenge at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the No. 10 Missouri men's basketball team stood tall Tuesday night to claim an 81-71 victory over Villanova.
In each game prior to Tuesday's, the Tigers had been cool and collected, almost astoundingly so under the new direction of coach Frank Haith.
But then the team stepped under the bright lights of basketball’s most royal cathedral at Madison Square Garden, a territory in which none of the Tigers’ players had ever been. They met Villanova there Tuesday night in the opening game of the Jimmy Valvano Classic, and they greeted the best challenge the season had yet to offer.
Before the victory, the Tigers (8-0) had not allowed an opponent to stay within 15 points of them, and never had they played 40 minutes in the face of so much adversity.
In the first half, MU experienced turbulence shooting the ball. What had been so consistent for the team through seven games, when the Tigers were shooting 52 percent from the field, became the problem Tuesday night.
The team attempted to bust the Wildcats’ 2-3 zone from the perimeter, but at the end of the first half, only 3 of 12 three-pointers had fallen. An efficient, well-paced offensive attack had MU cruising past opponents, but the offense appeared rushed entering the locker room.
Sophomore point guard Phil Pressey was faced with foul trouble in the first half and junior backup Michael Dixon was called in his relief. Pressey played six minutes of the half. Dixon was 1-of-10 from the field.
With 7:33 on the clock and the Tigers trailing 21-19, Missouri corralled four offensive boards, put up four shots and were denied each time. A 21-8 scoring run followed, and the Tigers found themselves ahead by 13 entering the locker room.
Senior guard Marcus Denmon, who sparked the late half turnaround and notched a career-high 31 points a few nights before against Northwestern State, struck early in the second. He poured in eight points in the opening 3:19.
With 8:53 left in the game, the Wildcats’ Achraf Yacoubou drilled a three-pointer to bring his team within seven.
But then it was Pressey at the helm of the offense finding his teammates. He slashed and dished to Ricardo Ratliffe, who dunked in the score. Then he passed to Denmon, who pulled up for a jumper. Then he located Kim English in the left corner and the Big 12 Conference’s leading three-point shooter connected on just his second deep dish of the game.
Pressey set a career-high with 13 assists. Denmon led the game with 28 points on 6 three-pointers.
The Tigers play Navy on Saturday night at Mizzou Arena.