KANSAS CITY, Mo. – With a seven-player rotation and a lack of size, Missouri has spent most of this season answering to critics who want to say what the Tigers aren't.
This is what Missouri is: 28-4 overall and in the semifinals of the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Championship. And when the Tigers play like they did in Thursday's quarterfinal victory over Oklahoma State, they are a team capable of hanging with any team in college basketball.
Missouri combined defensive pressure with offensive execution in a scintillating first half that provided the foundation for an 88-70 victory over the seventh-seeded Cowboys (one of four teams that have victories over Mizzou.)
The second-seeded Tigers will face No. 6 seed Texas, a 71-65 winner over Iowa State, in Saturday's second semifinal game at the Sprint Center. No. 4 seed Baylor fill face No. 1 seed Kansas in the first semifinal at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
"I thought our defense at the start of the ballgame was outstanding," said Missouri coach Frank Haith, whose team shot 59.3 percent to complement its defensive effort. "We got back to guarding the ball the way we were guarding the ball earlier in the year. I thought our intensity level was very good."
A bit of an understatement, that. The Tigers consider K.C. to be their town; Missouri won the Big 12 Championship in 2009 but that was in Oklahoma City. The chance to get another shot at top-seeded Kansas in Saturday's championship game and perhaps earn an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed provides plenty of incentive for Mizzou.
That was evident in the first 20 minutes. Missouri broke away from a 6-6 tie with a 24-3 run fueled by its defense.
"We really came in this game focusing on energy and defense," said senior Kim English, who scored 21 of his 27 points in the first half. "We feel like when we're right, our offense is never the problem. We really came out with a concerted effort to defend. And that starts with Phil (Pressey) out top. I mean, he was getting on-ball steals. And it was a track meet from that."
Pressey, Missouri's sophomore point guard, ran both the opening and anchor legs of the relay. His on-ball defense produced five steals and he set a Big 12 Championship record for assists by a sophomore with 12. Pressey attempted just three shots.
"I think we're really good when he's play making," Haith said of Pressey. "When he's into that mode of getting guys involved and play making, he's awfully good, which makes us awfully good."
Missouri's lead ballooned to 29 late in the first half and the Tigers led 49-24 at halftime. The Cowboys (15-18) found solace in the fact that they won the second half (46-39).
"I think you saw in the second half kind of what we've exemplified: A team that never gives up, a team that's going to fight until the end," Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. "When you let Missouri play to their strength, if they're playing to their strength, there's not many teams better in the country. When they're playing their best, they can beat anybody … they're that good."