COLUMBIA, Mo. Marcus Denmon dribbled out the closing seconds, and Missouri coach Frank Haith stood nearby clapping to end an imperfect victory that, on Saturday afternoon, served as further proof that this Tigers season will include blemish.
As expected, second-ranked Missouri beat struggling Texas Tech 63-50 at Mizzou Arena, its 12th straight victory at home. As expected, the Tigers improved to 6-2 in Big 12 play, leaving them tied with Baylor for second place and one game behind Kansas for first. And with little surprise, Haith praised his team's response after losing to Oklahoma State on Wednesday by saying, "I thought the game today, we played Big 12 basketball. It was a hard-fought Big 12 game."
The game Saturday was contested perhaps more than expected given Texas Tech's stature as the lone Big 12 team with an 0-7 conference record before tipoff but the fact that the Red Raiders were as close as seven points with a little more than two minutes left said more about Missouri than its hapless opponent.
Life in the Big 12, the Tigers have learned, can be unforgiving. The manner in which they brushed aside non-conference opponents with ease likely won't be repeated as a conference title and top seeding in the NCAA tournament become more possible.
Rather than routs with flash, Missouri's late-season victories will resemble the one earned Saturday gained through grit. And to Haith, the evolution is no surprise.
"We've got a long way to go," he said. "We would not play flawless basketball all year. We're coming off a loss, so you knew this game was going to be a tough game. But we won, so that's a great thing for us as we move forward to Monday night (against Texas)."
On Saturday, Haith's team was far from flawless. The Tigers shot 39.6 percent from the floor. They were outrebounded 31-27 by a squad that arrived in Columbia as ninth in the Big 12 in rebounding margin. And until they scored six straight points in the final two minutes and 18 seconds, the Tigers allowed the Red Raiders to carry a slim belief but a belief nonetheless that an upset could happen.
Still, Haith saw signs of growth despite the imperfections. He was pleased with how his team adjusted to the Red Raiders' plan of limiting senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe, who finished with eight points and was held to fewer than 10 for the first time since scoring three against Mercer on Nov. 14. He was pleased with the play of senior guard Kim English, who had a game-high 22 his best production in three weeks. And he was pleased with how Denmon, a senior guard, fought through a 4-of-15 shooting performance to earn 19.
"Good teams," Denmon said, "find a way to win."
And there is no denying Missouri is one of the Big 12's best. If a road victory over then-No. 3 Baylor last Saturday was the Tigers' highlight to this point and the loss to Oklahoma State was them at their worst, a victory over Texas Tech meant Missouri did what it must do to keep pace among the Big 12's elite: Defend home court, steal road victories and hope the top of the standings swing in their favor.
On Saturday, the Tigers gained ground by meeting that standard. Iowa State handed No. 5 Kansas its first Big 12 loss, beating the Jayhawks 72-64 at Hilton Coliseum.
But can the Tigers stand atop the Big 12 at season's end? Missouri proved in beating Baylor that its lack of height the Tigers have no player taller than 6-foot-9 senior center Steve Moore can be overcome with speed and smart court positioning.
Yet, earlier, during a 16-point drubbing on Jan. 7, Kansas State revealed size and strength sometimes do matter. Tight defense forced Tigers guards into rushed passes along the perimeter. And Missouri provided little challenge once it struggled from 3-point range.
"I think we're in good shape," Haith said. "You look at what we've already done we went on the road and won some games on the road. And we've protected our home court. That's the formula. You want to steal some games on the road, and you want to protect your home court. We've done that the first half of the year."
The upcoming week will offer a chance to see if the trend continues. Haith will meet his mentor, Rick Barnes, on Monday in Austin with a chance to sweep the young Longhorns. And Saturday, the Jayhawks visit Mizzou Arena in what could be a matchup between top-10 teams.
Against Texas Tech, though, Missouri's victory was far from perfect. But Red Raiders coach Billy Gillispie walked off the court impressed and considered the Tigers worthy of their No. 2 ranking.
"They've got a very, very good team," he said when asked if the Tigers played up to their ranking. "And they've got good players at every single position. They've got some guys off the bench who can play. They complement each other well. And it's not inconsistent they've very consistent with their play. You say, Well, they're too small.' They're not too small, because you have to guard them on the other end. They do a good job of covering each other defensively."
On Saturday, the Tigers did the job necessary to beat an inferior opponent. They have evolved, using grit rather than flash.