LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) – CSU didn’t think its NCAA Tournament opener against Missouri would go this smoothly.
But when shots fall like they did in Thursday night’s 84-72 victory, the eighth-seeded Rams believe the rest falls into place.
Dorian Green scored 17 first-half points and started CSU on its way in a game in which it was rarely threatened by Missouri. He finished with 26 on 6-of-13 shooting, including three from beyond the arc and 11 of 12 free throw attempts.
Not a bad rebound a year after going scoreless with five turnovers in last year’s second-round upset to Murray State.
“I wanted to be aggressive tonight,” the Kansas native said. “It didn’t matter who we were playing, but, you know, it’s good to beat them where I’m from.”
The Rams did better this time as well, winning their first tournament game since 1988 by shooting nearly 58 percent in the first half before finishing 25 of 51 (49 percent). They dominated the boards 42-19, and Minnesota transfer and big man Colton Iverson outrebounded Missouri by himself through 27 minutes in finishing with 13.
CSU’s only blemish was turnovers (14), which didn’t matter because it did so many other things well. First-year Rams coach Larry Eustachy his team is capable of doing more.
“I think we can play better, I really do,” said Eustachy, who earned the victory with his fourth tournament team. “We’re limited. We’re not the most athletic or highest jumping team. But we’ve got a lot of heart.”
The coach will no doubt try to tap into every area possible with the tournament road getting tougher as the Rams advance to face top-seeded Louisville in Saturday’s third-round Midwest Regional game at Rupp Arena. The Cardinals pressed early and often in drubbing No. 16 North Carolina A&T 79-48 in the preceding game.
“We’re going to prepare for that,” said CSU guard Jon Octeus, who scored 12 points. “We’ve done a good job of pressuring each other; I think we’ll be able to handle all the pressure they bring.”
The Rams (26-8) encountered little resistance from Missouri (23-11). They led by as many as 17 points in the second half and answered the Tigers’ comeback bids with timely baskets before spending the late part of the game at the free throw line.
Phil Pressey’s 20 points led the Tigers. Alex Oriakhi added 16 points and Jabari Brown 14 for Missouri, which shot 42 percent (24 of 57).
“I thought they were the more aggressive team,” Tigers coach Frank Haith said of the Rams. “They really went after us and I thought they were rebounding the ball, which is what they do. They really dominated that part of the game and dominated the 50/50 balls.
“They were the aggressors. In this time of the year in tournament play, that’s usually the team that wins the game.”
The lopsided outcome was surprising considering the teams’ similarities that made this an intriguing matchup.
Besides balanced offenses with at least four starters averaging in double figures, CSU and Missouri also have thrived on the glass. The Rams entered the game with a rebound margin of 12.1 per game, tops in the nation. The Tigers were third at 9.6.
Iverson averaged 14.7 points per game to key CSU’s return to the tournament along with Eustachy, who led Southern Mississippi here last year. The 6-foot-10 senior has been helped by Eikmeier (12.7 points) and Green (12.8 points) and Smith (11.1).
Missouri, meanwhile, featured one of the field’s most balanced offenses, with Laurence Bowers (14.4 points) leading five starters averaging at least 11 points per game. Pressey has been one of the Tigers’ most interesting stories, a talented guard who has tended to make mistakes in key moments.
That made for an entertaining first half that CSU led 47-38 by setting the offensive pace before falling into an end-to-end game more to Missouri’s liking.
The Rams shot 15 of 26 (58 percent) in the first half and seemed primed to run away from the Tigers. Green was 3 for 3 from beyond the arc.
Missouri was 15 of 30 in the first 20 minutes with four 3-pointers.
Missouri closed to 49-45 early in the second half, but the Rams responded with a 17-4 surge for their biggest lead at 66-49.
“I think the nation saw a hard-nosed team that’s not afraid to be physical, play tough and go after the ball,” Rams guard Jordan Mason said. “We are a pretty good basketball team.”
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