Bell and Oriakhi provide offensive spark during team’s injuries.
After smoke finishes billowing from behind Norm Stewart Court’s baskets, after spotlights cease circling Mizzou Arena’s lower bowl, after public address announcer Aric Bremer has finally completely his longwinded introduction of the Missouri student section, Missouri (15-4, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) actually has to score.
Without senior forward Laurence Bowers, that task has become increasingly difficult.
Bowers, out with an MCL sprain in his right knee, has led off the scoring in five of Missouri’s 19 games, more than any other player on the team, but was never missed so sorely as during the No. 4 Florida Gators’ 83-52 chomping of the Tigers last Saturday.
By the time the Gators were up 11-0 over visiting Missouri Jan. 19, the 17th-ranked Tigers had already missed five shots.
“With Laurence out, we don’t have that guy that we know is going to a bucket at the beginning of every game,” sophomore guard Jabari Brown said. “Having that player, stuff like that really helps. You know where you’re going with the ball.”
Bowers’ 22-day absence has rendered MU’s offense pitiful at times — like the 23 first half-points at Florida — yet resurgent at others, like 44 second-half points in a comeback win against South Carolina.
“You take a great player out of your lineup who’s been the focal point of what you do and then you got to get adjusted,” coach Frank Haith said. “And that took us a couple of games to get adjusted to that. I think we’ve gotten better, obviously without him being there.”
When the Memphis native returns to Haith’s lineup (he is questionable for Wednesday’s game at Louisiana State), Missouri will play with a complete roster for the first time this season.
Senior forward Tony Criswell returned from a broken middle finger on his left hand Jan. 12 against Ole Miss. Seven days later, Bowers sprained his knee late in a home win against Alabama, and senior guard Keion Bell tweaked an ankle in the beat down in Gainsborough.
Even junior forward Earnest Ross was almost held out against South Carolina last Tuesday because of back pain.
“Injuries are part of basketball,” senior guard Phil Pressey said. “Good teams learn how to play with them. You can’t go, ‘Oh he’s hurt,’ or ‘That’s the reason why we lost,’ you can’t do that because nobody’s going to feel sorry for you. You just have to learn to play with injuries and when everybody comes back you just dominate.”
After the addition of sophomore transfer Brown in mid-December, the Tigers will finally be at full strength when Bowers returns as the meat of their conference schedule approaches.
“Keion’s back and obviously Laurence is a big part of this team so I definitely feel we’re confident,” senior forward Alex Oriakhi said. “I definitely think everything is a mindset with this team. I think all the pieces are there and like I said it’s just a mindset. We have to come out with that mindset to be killers every game.”
Bell returned Saturday and posted 12 points and three steals, two of which sparked a 32-2 run that put away the Vanderbilt Commodores early in the first half.
“I was eager to play after having some time off last week,” Bell said. “I felt that earlier in the game, you know we needed energy and we needed a spark. Somewhere along the line I just try to provide that spark.”
Oriakhi has also provided a spark for the Tigers especially on offense. The Connecticut transfer is averaging 11.4 points per game as MU’s new go-to-guy in the post since Bowers’ injury.
He even had six of his 16 total points to close out the Crimson Tide as Bowers, who tallied 16 points as well, left with the MCL injury.
“I know since he was out I was called to step up more especially on the offensive end, but my offensive game is something I work on every day after practice, so I just feel when you keep getting reps you feel more comfortable,” Oriakhi said. “When I shoot a hook shot, I’ve done it a thousand times, so that one time when I shoot it in a game, I like my chances of it going in.”
A defensive specialist with the Huskies, he needs just 22 more points and one rebound to match his entire output from 2011-12 season.
“Any big man would love it, especially never really being a scorer my last three years at UConn,” Oriakhi said, referring to his newfound offensive popularity. “It’s definitely fun and when guys are looking for you, like I always say, you try to do everything in your power to finish.”