Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Relaxed Tigers Looking to Extend Their Season in NIT; Mizzou Hosts C- USA Champ Southern Miss on Sunday; COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Relaxed Tigers Looking to Extend Their Season in NIT; Mizzou Hosts C- USA Champ Southern Miss on Sunday; COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Article excerpt

At times during last week's National Invitation Tournament opener against Davidson, Missouri's basketball players appeared to rediscover some joy that was lost during two ragged months of conference play.

From Jan. 8 to their March 14 exit from the Southeastern Conference tournament, the Tigers went 10-10, playing a brand of offense that rarely looked cohesive and produced the fewest assists of any SEC team outside of Georgia.

But against Davidson last Tuesday, the Tigers shared the ball, exploited a less-athletic opponent and had some fun.

"Coach gave us a lot of freedom on offense to break down our guys off the dribble," point guard Jordan Clarkson said. "We really just got back to hooping."

That was easier against Davidson. As the Tigers (23-11) journey through the rest of the NIT bracket, the competition figures to improve, starting with Sunday's second-round opponent, Southern Miss (28-6), the Conference USA regular-season champion. The game tips off at 4 p.m. at Mizzou Arena on ESPNU. A win advances the Tigers into Tuesday's quarterfinal, where they'll play the winner of No. 1 seed Minnesota vs. No. 4 St. Mary's. The semifinals begin April 1 at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Out of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years, the Tigers seemed to embrace the chance to extend their season after trailing Davidson by 13 points early in the second half. From there, they pounced, playing some of their most inspired basketball in weeks.

"I've been a part of teams that are on the (NCAA Tournament) bubble, and you feel the pressures and you've got guys that are really good players, and they put more on themselves than they need to, and they stress a little bit," Missouri coach Frank Haith said Friday. "Could that have happened with those guys and our team a little bit? Surely it could have. I think it happens to a lot of teams that want to play in the tournament. You're right there, and you just put a little bit more on you than you need to. But were our guys relieved of that the other night? I don't know. I think they just went out and played. I thought our fans were a big part of that."

Just 2,403 fans came out for the NIT opener, MU's smallest home crowd of the season, but they were as loud as some of the biggest crowds at Mizzou Arena during SEC play. …

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