AMES, Iowa – Matt Pressey wanted to speak his mind.
The chatter that followed his team’s 16-point loss at Kansas State on Saturday — which snapped its 14-game winning streak — became fodder for the critics who thought the Tigers’ lofty ranking belied their true standing.
Had Pressey heard the jeers from the naysayers in recent days?
His response began with a shoulder shrug.
But before he could open his mouth to answer the question after his team’s 76-69 victory at Iowa State on Wednesday, Missouri coach Frank Haith interjected.
“We didn’t hear that criticism. So we don’t listen. Things we can’t control, OK?” Haith said.
He sounded like a man who just wanted to forget.
Everything about Missouri’s loss in Manhattan, Kan., seemed to justify its doubters.
They’re not big enough. They’re not deep enough. They’re not tough enough. They’ll struggle outside of Columbia.
But everything about the Tigers' gritty victory over Iowa State suggested otherwise.
They’re extremely fast on the perimeter. They’re crafty enough to guard bigger squads. They scored 40 points in the paint even though they’re one of the smallest teams in the league. And on a night when their leading scorer struggled, six other players recorded double figures.
The Tigers never used the word “need” in describing Wednesday’s victory, but it was an essential win for the program.
Some squads still haven’t recovered from stinging losses suffered weeks ago. Losing became a trend for Pitt and UCLA, two teams that suffered tough defeats in the early stages of the 2011-12 season.
To stop one loss from affecting their future, the Tigers would have to show more moxie on the road than they appeared to have Saturday.
“To win on the road, you’ve got to have that kind of mental toughness,” Haith said. “You’ve gotta be able to withstand runs because teams are going to go on runs because of the crowd.”
So Haith set aside some time to talk about all of the problems that affected his Tigers in the Kansas State loss. There were many.
They were outscored 44-25 in the first half. They were crushed on the boards. And they hit just 29 percent of their 3-pointers.
Once those issues were discussed, Haith told his team to forget about the loss and move forward.
“We spent a lot of time on that Sunday talking about K-State and then, there was no more to talk about,” Haith said. “We were on to the next game. We were on to preparing ourselves. Once we got done with it, it was talking about the toughness thing. We physically got whipped. … They understood we cannot let that happen again.”
Déjà vu, however, lurked at Hilton Coliseum.
An Iowa State squad that connected on 8 of its 12 first-half 3s -- including Scott Christopherson’s halfcourt shot just before halftime -- and followed the lead of a 6-foot-8 point guard/power forward Royce White (16 points) looked like the better team early.
But Missouri’s premier qualities emerged in the second half. The Tigers hit 59 percent of their shots after halftime. And although Marcus Denmon (1-for-5 for just 6 points) struggled, six of the seven Mizzou players who saw time for Haith scored in double figures.
“If we do a good job of being aggressive … They’re going to have to pick their poison,” Pressey said about his squad’s versatility.
The Tigers met every Cyclones charge in the second half with their own surge. After Chris Allen nailed a 3-pointer with 22 seconds on the clock to cut Missouri’s lead to 3, Denmon knocked down four free throws to seal the win. That was with both Kim English and Steve Moore on the bench with five fouls.
Chest-thumping and fist-pumping spread through Missouri’s bench as the Tigers fought off the Cyclones with five players. The team’s intensity rose with every ISU threat.
They wanted the test and another chance to prove themselves in a hostile environment. And they elevated their collective game against the challenge.
“The whole week we focused on being mentally tough," Pressey said. "Not so much physically, but being mentally tough on both ends, defense and offense.”
Missouri’s deficiencies could continue to cause problems, especially as it prepares to play some of the league’s bigger teams. But the Tigers say they don’t care about their weaknesses or the critics who emphasize them.
They’re comfortable with who they are. They also realize that they’re going to pose matchup problems for opponents, too.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who can score it,” Haith said. “It’s no secret. We’re not going to get any taller between now and the end of the year. We’re not going to add any more dudes. This is what we got.”