PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico -- Marcus Denmon had hoped to shed the sixth-man role he had filled so effectively in his first two seasons at Missouri.
But when the Tigers got off to a slow start in the first three games of the season, coach Mike Anderson decided to shuffle things up, and that meant Denmon was back to being a reserve when they tipped off against La Salle on Wednesday night in the championship of the Cancun Challenge.
It seemed to suit Denmon just fine. The junior guard scored a season-high 21 points to lead Missouri (No. 12 ESPN/USA Today, No. 11 AP) to an 83-71 victory over the Explorers at Aventura Spa Palace.
"It's not a role that I want to get back accustomed to," said Denmon, who was named the tournament's most valuable player. "I just want to do whatever I can do to help the team win."
Maybe it was just coincidence, but Denmon shot 7 for 12 from the floor while coming off the bench against La Salle after making only 3 of 13 shots in a starter's role in Tuesday's 72-62 semifinal victory over Wyoming. He made 5 of 7 3-point attempts, including one that capped a 14-2 run that pushed the Tigers from a one-point deficit to a 66-55 lead with 8 minutes remaining.
La Salle never got closer than eight points the rest of the way.
Several of Missouri's newcomers were key during the decisive surge. Junior Matt Pressey started it with a 3-pointer that gave the Tigers (4-0) a 55-53 lead with 13:46 left, and junior forward Ricardo Ratliffe, another junior college transfer, scored in six of his 14 points, battering the Explorers inside with a tip-in and two other layups.
Ratliffe also finished the game with a season-high 14 rebounds. Beyond his scoring, Denmon provided a steadying presence while sharing the floor with those rookies.
"That gave us more balance, and I thought he really came out and just kind of zeroed and focused in on playing well," coach Mike Anderson said. "I thought he did defensively as well as offensively."
"I think that's what you're trying to learn in the early nonconference schedule, the different mixes and guys that are going to play well and just trying to get the right combination because the most important component of our team is our bench."
Anderson, who has routinely employed 10 different players this season, has a lot of options to choose from, and that depth was a big advantage against La Salle (4-2).
Missouri had a season-high 49 bench points after averaging 27 in the first three games. Nine different players scored at least two points and nine different players grabbed at least one rebound.
La Salle starters combined to score 59 points, including 13 each from guards Ruben Guillandeaux and Earl Pettis, but the reserves managed only 12. The Tigers were also able to keep fresh bodies on the floor in a game played at their preferred frenetic pace.
"They just keep you running the whole game," La Salle coach John Gianni said. "People talk about controlling tempo against them, but if you're an aggressive team like ours, you don't want to pass up opportunities to score on the break or against their press. But it does wear on you.
"It reminds me of the old Loyola Marymount quote that when you get a few baskets against their press and you're running and the game is fast, it's like eating ice cream. Players love to play fast, they love to get some easy baskets, but try to eat ice cream for 40 minutes straight. You're going to get sick. You can't do it."
The results last night included 19 turnovers to the Tigers' season-low six. The Explorers also had a difficult time keeping getting in position to box out Missouri, and the Tigers got their hands on 22 offensive rebounds. They finished with a 42-37 edge overall on the glass.
That combination of those things meant Missouri had a lot of extra possessions, and it attempted 29 more shots than La Salle. Because of that, it hardly mattered that the Tigers shot 32 for 82 from the field.
"We were taking care of the ball, sharing the basketball and we had guys finishing, got to the free-throw line just as much as the opponent," Anderson said. "And we outrebounded them. You have those things going in your favor, most times you're going to win. It's a great start for our team in terms of progressing in the right direction."