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March 14, 2009

Lyons, Tigers follow Taylor's lead

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - Hasn't this story already been told?

Missouri falls behind on the road and finds itself in front of a surprisingly hostile crowd - something that wasn't supposed to be a factor when the game was put on the schedule. When the Tigers' shots don't fall, junior guard Zaire Taylor puts the team on his back, and with his offense, carries them to a victory that looks more comfortable than it really was.

Was this a case of déja vu?

It couldn't be. This game took place in Oklahoma City, not Athens, Ga. And this wasn't some meaningless non-conference tune-up against a mediocre opponent. No, Friday's game was the biggest contest of the year for Missouri, against a streaking Oklahoma State team fresh off an upset of its in-state rival. The Cowboys weren't supposed to be there; the Ford Center wasn't supposed to be filled with bright orange shirts this late in the tournament.

But while the venue and opponent changed, Taylor's performance did not. The pass-first guard with an ever-present smile on his face turned up his offense when his teammates' shots hit everywhere but the bottom of the net. He ended with 19 points this time, two more than his previous best that was first set against the Bulldogs on Jan. 4. Taylor's 19 points led the Tigers to a 67-59 win over the Cowboys, and Missouriadvances to its first Big 12 title game since 2003.

Obviously, a lot has changed since Jan. 4. The Tigers have gone from a pleasant surprise to a national name, and now a Big 12 tournament- title contender. Taylor has transformed from being known only as a superb defender to "Mr. Coffee," courtesy of game-winning shots over Texas and Kansas that cemented Missouri as a top team.

Friday night, though, it wasn't just one shot that he should be remembered for. He should be remembered for seven shots and two free throws. He should be remembered for the most important 19 points of Missouri's season to date. Those buckets kept the Tigers in the game when Oklahoma State could have been blowing them out. Those buckets advanced the Tigers to the Big 12 tournament championship.

"It is just a blessing," Taylor said after the game, through that aforementioned smile. "I thank God every day that I even had this opportunity to come here and play on a level like this. Just playing - for a team to play this good makes it that much more better."

Like so many times before, Taylor had a wait- and see- approach to the game. Would he focus on defense and making good passes? Or would he amp up his aggression on offense? He answered that question in the first half, scoring 10 of Missouri's 21 points. He reached 17 points with 14:54 left in regulation. It's only fitting that each of his first three buckets in the second half gave the Tigers the lead.

But, with just under 15 minutes left, Taylor passed the torch. The Tigers' shots started to fall. First it was J.T. Tiller with a lay-up. Then freshmen Kim English and Marcus Denmon got into the scoring column. Matt Lawrence found his three-point stroke. Finally, it was Leo Lyons who caught Taylor's offensive outbreak.

"Good Leo" scored 12 points in the final nine and a half- minutes of the game. His points, four of which were put-backs on offensive rebounds, and two steals sealed the win for the Tigers.

"It gets contagious," Missouri coach Mike Anderson said after the game. "I thought in the second half our guys really, really stepped up to the plate and I think that's... if you are going to have a good team your guard plays, it has got to be good."

Taylor was more than good. While Lyons might be remembered as the one who put the game away, Taylor should be the one who gets credit for bailing out the Tigers in this year's tournament. And if Missouri beats Baylor on Saturday evening, Taylor should be the one who made sure Missouri got its first Big 12 title in any men's sport.

"That's (the big shots) what we all live for floor, even when we are little, if I remember correctly," Taylor said. "When you are five years old, you always count down before you take your last shot, you count down five, four, three, two, one and then you shoot and hope it goes in.

He paused and the smile returned.

"If you miss, you get the chance to do it again. Honestly, it is just - everybody has that feeling of wanting to be in that atmosphere. As student-athletes on this stage, we all get a chance to do it. It's what we live for."

Taylor didn't get to count down in Friday's game. He scored his final two points from the free-throw line with 18 seconds left. But, if the tournament's finale comes down to one last shot, you can bet he'll be counting.

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