Tony Criswell wouldn’t let a broken finger ruin his moment.
After missing a chunk of the season and having to have his left hand wrapped in ice after games, the 6-foot-9 forward had his first chance to get into the starting lineup Wednesday night against Georgia.
Up until this point in the season, the moment had eluded him. Since transferring to Missouri as part of the Tigers' 2012 recruiting class, the junior had been used primarily off the bench, filling in as a big man in the paint when needed.
Criswell, starting his first game of the season, scored 10 points with six rebounds, helping No. 17 Missouri (13-3, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) beat Georgia (6-10, 0-3 SEC) 79-62 at Mizzou Arena.
“I felt pretty comfortable with it,” Criswell said after the game. “You gotta stay focused, play through the calls and everything, so that’s kind of what I did.”
In their first game since losing to Ole Miss 64-49 on the road, the Tigers used a slightly altered starting lineup with Criswell and freshman forward Stefan Jankovic in the starting rotation.
Both players had an immediate impact from the first tip for a Missouri offense that was shorthanded with the team's leading scorer, senior forward Laurence Bowers, on the sidelines with an injury.
Criswell tried to get things started early, taking Missouri’s first shot of the game. After missing a jumper, he struggled for an offensive rebound in the paint, got the ball and missed a layup in traffic. Three possessions later, Criswell drew an offensive charge to get the Tigers the ball back. Back on offense, he air-balled a jump shot to keep the game scoreless.
Despite the tough start, Jankovic jumpstarted the offense with its first five points of the game, including an open three from an assist by senior forward Alex Oriakhi. Missouri went ahead 5-2 and kept the lead for the rest of the game.
“It was a really good win for us,” coach Frank Haith said. “I thought we bounced back great. We had five guys in double figures and 32 points in the paint. I was really encouraged with the way we played inside out. All in all, it was a really good win for us.”
Since coming to Missouri, Haith has never lost in back-to-back games — Wednesday night’s victory was no exception. The Tigers remain undefeated at home this season and improved to 8-0 under Haith in games following a loss.
For Georgia, the loss continued the team's winless streak in SEC play. Senior guard Vincent Williams had the best performance of his Georgia career, leading both teams with 23 points off 7 of 10 shooting in 27 minutes of play.
“Missouri has a really good team,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “That was a hard-fought game. I thought our team played really hard. Certainly 19 turnovers is hard to overcome on the road against a good team, but Missouri has a very good basketball team and a team that just has scoring all over the floor. That was difficult for us to stop.”
Led in scoring by junior guard Earnest Ross and sophomore guard Jabari Brown, the Tigers' offense avoided the slow start that kept the team behind in last Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss. Brown scored 15 points off 3 of 6 shooting behind the arc after struggling with three-point shooting in his last game, while Oriakhi shot a perfect 5 of 5 from the field for 13 points.
In the middle of the second half, junior guard Phil Pressey paused at the top of the key, then found Brown cutting to the basket for layup, giving the Tigers a 62-47 lead, one of their largest of the game. The play was commonplace for the two guards, with Brown becoming one of the Tigers' primary scoring threats since his first game with the team in December.
"We know Phil is a big play maker and leader for us,” Brown said. “If he plays 39 minutes every night or 37 minutes, it is going to wear on him. He can go. So, we just try to pick up the slack whether it is two or three minutes here and there. So, we try to take care of the ball especially on the offensive side."
Despite his rough start, Criswell said he was able to focus as the game went on. In his postgame press conference, Haith said Criswell was making the most of the playing opportunity with his tough style of play, a sentiment Brown echoed after the game.
"I think Tony brings that intensity, definitely,” Brown said. “Earlier in warm-ups, he was letting everybody know we gotta have a bounce-back game and coach can count on him in every game. Whether or not his mid-range jumper is falling or anything like that, he is always going to play hard."