The territory was familiar for first-year coach Frank Haith, who was born in Queens, N.Y., roughly 11 miles east of basketball’s most royal cathedral.
But when the Missouri men’s basketball team stepped into Madison Square Garden to meet Villanova for the opening match of the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday night, players found themselves in an unfamiliar setting. No players of the No. 10 Tigers had played in the arena, and it was here that they would greet the best challenge of the season yet.
"The Mizzou brand was on the national scene tonight,” Haith said after his team's 81-71 victory over Villanova. “And the lights are bright, very bright here in New York. But there's no question, when (I) got the job, this was a game that I thought would really help us, really help our program.”
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.
“We’re a veteran bunch and we showed some resiliency,” said senior guard Marcus Denmon, who finished the game with 28 points on six 3-pointers.
In the first half, Denmon and Missouri 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.
The team attempted to bust the Wildcats’ 2-3 zone from the perimeter, but at the end of the first half, only three of 12 attempts from behind the arc had fallen. An efficient, well-paced offensive attack had the Tigers cruising past opponents, but the offense appeared rushed early in the game.
Sophomore point guard Phil Pressey faced foul trouble in the first half, and backup junior Michael Dixon was called in for relief. Pressey played six minutes of the half. Dixon was 1-of-10 from the field.
With 7:33 on the clock in the first half and the Tigers trailing 21-19, Missouri corralled four offensive boards, put up four shots and was denied each time.
But a 21-8 scoring run followed, and the Tigers found themselves ahead by 13 entering the locker room.
“We know that that’s going to happen as we continue further into the season,” Haith said of the team’s shooting woes. “It was great to see how we responded when we had a little bit of adversity.”
Denmon, who sparked the late half turnaround and who 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. With the score at 65-58, the Tigers had never been in a closer second half all season.
But then it was Pressey at the helm of the offense finding his teammates. He slashed and dished to Ricardo Ratliffe, who dunked for a second time in the game, an exact duplicate of a play that happened earlier. Ratliffe finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds.
Pressey finished the game with a career-high 13 assists in only eight minutes of play.
"I've been on a lot of teams from high school to AAU and junior college, and I don't think I've ever seen anything like it,” Ratliffe said. “This is the most unselfish team I've played on, and, like seen on TV. So, I mean, it's just once in a lifetime that you get blessed (to) be on a team like this with so many selfless guys."
On Tuesday night, the whole nation got a chance to see it.