Perhaps the ending was a bit tenser than many fans in Mizzou Arena had expected, but the Missouri men’s basketball team escaped its season opener with a win against Western Illinois by a score of 66-61 Thursday.
The win extended Missouri’s winning streak to 41-0 against nonconference opponents at Mizzou Arena under coach Mike Anderson, but, to do it, the Tigers had to make a few big plays at the end of regulation to seal a victory.
“We got a chance to see a lot of lessons learned,” Anderson said. “I told our guys, “You’re going to have teams that come in and give their best shot and get after it. And I thought Western Illinois took it right to us and physically challenged our guys. But in the end, they dug deep and found the way to make some plays down the stretch to win."
Missouri got off to a sluggish start and didn’t take the lead until 13 minutes into the first half. Anderson’s signature full-court press didn’t keep Western Illinois at bay, as both teams failed to pull away from each other in the first half. The Tigers managed a five point lead at halftime, after a Steve Moore three pointer with six seconds remaining in the half made the score 34-29. It was the first three pointer of his career.
“Steve, in my eyes, was the player of the game,” Anderson said. “He came out and used his big body and scored. On defense he was blocking shots, rebounding, getting on the floor. So he brought that energy that you have to have, and we’ve got to have more guys doing that.”
But the momentum wouldn’t carry over, as Western Illinois went on a 7-4 run to start the second half. The Tigers went on a 14-7 run with two minutes remaining, and sophomore Michael Dixon and freshman Phil Pressey sank six free throws in the final minute to ice the game for Missouri. Junior forward Lawrence Bowers said the team looked to the more experienced players for support.
“Good teams find a way to win, and I consider us a good team,” Bowers said. “The veteran guys like (English), stepped up. He came into the huddle and told us ‘there’s a lot of time left.’ When you can jump on somebody’s back like (Kim’s), you know you’ve got leaders in there that won’t give up.”
English finished with just eight points but had a jump shot and a block in the final minute to help secure the win for the Tigers. As the No. 15 team in the country, English said the team is starting to understand they are now the hunted, instead of the hunters.
“We learned Mizzou means more now than it did four years ago,” English said. “So every time we step on the floor, we’re going to get everyone’s best shot (at us). To be effective and win games, we have to come out and set the tone defensively, and everything else in the game will take care of itself.”