GLENDALE, Arizona -- Missouri sure has figured out how to make things exciting.
Thursday’s 102-91 victory against the No. 2 Memphis Tigers was no dance. It was far from graceful and certainly not pretty, but for fans, it was mostly nerve-wracking.
“We like our fans to sweat,” freshman guard Kim English said after the game. “As long as we get the win, we’re happy.”
The Tigers opened up a 24-point lead four minutes into the second half, but the seemingly certain rout instead turned into a gut-wrencher for Missouri fans.
Memphis streaked on an 11-0 run, doing everything possible to extend its NCAA long 27-game win streak. In a one-minute span, Missouri committed five fouls and looked like it might collapse.
But just like they did against Marquette in the last round, the Tigers were able to come back, survive and advance.
“We’re making it interesting,” senior guard Matt Lawrence said. “I know a lot of people would just like us to put it away, but it’s hard to put away a team like Memphis. I’m just glad that clock read zero and we were still winning.”
The Tigers did everything imaginable early to secure a 49-36 lead at the break. Missouri out-rebounded a much lankier Memphis team 21-18 and shot 54 percent from the floor.
Junior guard J.T. Tiller slashed to the basket with ease, putting up 16 first-half points. He went on to score a career-high 23 points.
“I just came out and did what they allowed me to do,” Tiller said. “The court was spread and they allowed me to attack. That’s what I did and that was my game.”
The most memorable shot of the game came when freshman guard Marcus Denmon swished through a 65-footer to beat the first half buzzer.
“When I let it go I heard someone from the bench say, ‘That’s good,’" Denmon said. “It just gave the team so much momentum going into the half. It gave everyone so much confidence at the end of the half. It showed in the way we came out in the first four minutes.”
Missouri picked up right where it left off to start the second half. The pressure defense forced Memphis into two quick turnovers leading to easy Missouri points.
But then that pesky Memphis run began. The other Tigers were able to get past Missouri’s defense and finish layups on seemingly every possession.
“When they started to get to the free throw line and getting past our defense and getting to the basket, that’s when we started coming together and trying to get these stops,” senior forward Leo Lyons said.
Memphis came all the way back within seven, but the deficit was just too big from which to fight back.
"This is the best year of my life, hands down," Lawrence said. “The best year of basketball ever for me. We don’t have any incredible superstars on this team. We don’t have any lottery picks, but we have a lot of really good basketball players willing to do whatever it takes to win.”