PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico (AP) — Life in the Top 25 hasn’t been easy for No. 11 Missouri.
The Tigers, ranked to start the season for the first time since 2003, struggled to escape with a five-point win in their season opener against Western Illinois last Thursday and needed until the last eight minutes to finally put North Florida away on Saturday.
They found themselves grinding again against Wyoming on Tuesday in the semifinals of the Cancun Challenge.
Sophomore Mike Dixon scored a career-high 17 points, handed out six assists and came up with a key loose ball in Missouri’s 72-62 victory at the Aventura Spa Palace.
“We got the job done. It wasn’t the prettiest thing,” coach Mike Anderson said. “But at the same time, I thought we dug when we had to.”
He watched his team commit a season-high 20 turnovers, shoot a season-low 38 percent from the field against Wyoming’s zone defense and send the Cowboys to the foul line for 30 free throws.
But the Tigers (3-0) overcame it all to advance to Wednesday’s championship game against La Salle. The Explorers reached the final by beating Providence 84-73 in Tuesday’s other semifinal. Wyoming (2-3) really picked up its play in the second half and whittled a 15-point halftime deficit down to 59-57 after Francisco Cruz’s jumper with 4:22 remaining.
Junior Laurence Bowers missed a layup on Missouri’s next possession, and a scramble ensued for the loose ball. Dixon squirted in from the top of the key to come up with it and reset the offense.
Marcus Denmon wound up with an open 3-pointer off a kickout pass from Kim English and he knocked it down to end a near 4-minute scoring drought and put the Tigers ahead 62-57.
“There was a minute there where they were coming back — I think they got within two and that was the ice-breaker,” Bowers said. “I think from that play on, we knew, ‘Man, this team has got to play, and we’ve got to play more with a sense of urgency.’”
The Cowboys never drew closer than four points the rest of the way.
Bowers had a tip-in with 3:29 left to extend the lead to 64-57, and he leaped out of crowd for another one that put Missouri ahead 66-60 with 58 seconds to play.
Those were the last of his 12 points, and the junior also finished with seven rebounds to help Missouri finish with a 43-34 edge on the glass.
The Tigers sealed the win by hitting four free throws in the final 20 seconds, including two by Dixon after Arthur Bouedo was whistled for an intentional foul.
Junior Kim English made the last two free throws with the 13 seconds remaining for the final margin. He finished with 11 points.
Missouri was 10 for 12 from the foul line. Had Wyoming been able to approach that percentage, the result might have been different, but the Cowboys missed 11 of their 30 attempts.
Wyoming was also done in by their poor execution in the first half. The Cowboys had not faced the type of full-court, on-the-ball pressure the Tigers apply, and it was evident in their 13 first-half turnovers.
When they weren’t coughing it up, they were also rushing many of their shots and wound up shooting 26.9 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes.
“I think our defense won the game for us because our offense, it was coming and going,” Bowers said.
Wyoming was stuck on 11 points for nearly 7 minutes as Missouri stretched a 14-11 lead to 25-11 with the help of three 3-pointers by Ricky Kreklow, Dixon and English.
“I think we came out not ready, and as soon as we was ready, we started playing how we usually play and played tougher and got better as the game kept going,” said Wyoming forward Amath M’Baye, who scored a career-high 16 points to lead Wyoming.
But the change didn’t begin until the second half when M’Baye scored 15 of his points. Guard Desmar Jackson had seven after the break and finished with 12 points, but he also committed nine of his team’s 19 turnovers.