Published January 16, 2012
COLUMBIA, Mo. – Texas A&M started the season with expectations to compete for a Big 12 title.
Now, the Aggies are fighting just to keep up.
"Number one, this is a different team than last year's team," first-year coach Billy Kennedy said. "The expectations are based off last year's team. We lost some guys. We are just getting Middleton back. We have one point guard in the program that can play college basketball."
Reserve guard Michael Dixon made his final four shots from behind the arc in the first half and scored 18 points overall to lead Missouri, which snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Aggies.
The Tigers (17-1, 4-1 Big 12) started the game by making only five of their first 14 shots from the field against the conference's best scoring defense. But Dixon's 3-pointer with 7:22 remaining in the first half started a 17-0 run that gave Missouri a 31-17 lead.
"I missed the first 3, but it kind of felt good," Dixon said. "I had been shooting well in warmups so it was just a rhythm thing and my teammates were able to find me. I just happened to be hitting today."
Elston Turner hit a free throw to end the Aggies' 6:32 scoreless drought.
"I consider him a starter coming in and doing what we can offensively," Kennedy said of Dixon. "It's a great weapon to have off the bench."
Texas A&M (10-7, 1-4) scored the first seven points of in the second half to get within 42-30. The Aggies got within 10 points three times, but could get no closer.
Marcus Denmon's steal and ensuing three-point play with 8:40 left started a 10-1 run for Missouri, which led 64-44 with 3:57 left in the game.
"We're not the most athletic team or the quickest team in the country," Kennedy said. "So we have to do a better job of being more physical. Their athleticism wore us down."
Missouri's last win over Texas A&M had been in the 2004 Big 12 tournament.
Missouri is ranked in the top five for the first time since 2003-04, and has won 62 of its last 65 home games, falling only to Kansas twice and Texas A&M. The Tigers' have won each home game this season by an average of 27.6 points.
The Aggies came in allowing 57.5 points per game, holding opponents to 36.9 percent shooting. Missouri couldn't do much better, shooting 40 percent, but the Tigers held Texas A&M to 35 percent, its second-lowest shooting percentage of the season.
Haith credited the defense for building a lead at the end of the first half.
"We were pressuring them, they shot the ball quickly, we got some stops," Haith said. "We scored in transition. But our defense was consistent during that stretch. And I thought that was key to getting some separation."
Denmon added 16 points and nine rebounds for Missouri, which leads the Big 12 in scoring offense (83.9) and field goal percentage (51.2).
Middleton is leading the Aggies in scoring since he returned nine games ago after surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus in his right knee. He has yet to return to full strength and cannot practice every day, Kennedy said.
Ray Turner added 11 points and nine rebounds for Texas A&M, which has lost six of eight.
"We are just trying to hang in there," Turner said. "Everyone is trying to get used to a new thing, everything that is coming to us. New coaching staff — it's just something that we just have to get through. We've just got to keep our heads up."
Ricardo Ratliffe wasn't called for his first foul until the second half for the second consecutive game, helping Missouri avoid having to go deeper than its seven-man rotation. The Tigers outrebounded Texas A&M 38-26 and were 27 of 31 from the free throw line.
"In order for us to have the kind of year, the kind of team we want to have," Haith said, "we have to do that every single night. And that's all about loose rebounds. Defensive rebounding has got to be a key to our success."
Kennedy served as an assistant under Haith while both were at Miami in 2005-06. Haith defeated his mentor and former head coach, Rick Barnes, in a 84-73 victory on Friday over Texas.
"We're great friends," Haith said. "I know one thing about him — he'll get that team playing the way he wants them to play. He's got a great job, and I think he'll do well there."