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March 4, 2009

Total Team Effort

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Oklahoma came to town riding the best player in college basketball to a gaudy 26-and-3 record and a No. 4 national ranking. They rode out with a loss thanks to what Mike Anderson has preached all season long.

"Coach always said he wants us to be the ultimate team," Marcus Denmon said. "So when it isn't clicking with one guy, other people can step up. Sometimes, the most important key can be the bench."

The Tiger starters were quick to give credit to the bench after this one...or at least a player that is usually on the furthest end of the bench.

"We had a fast start thanks to Mike Junior," Demarre Carroll said. "He never started a game, but all of a sudden coach put him in the lineup and he made some great plays and got us off to a great start."

Michael Anderson Jr. got the first start of his career, a reward for senior night. But the player that normally sees only garbage time made the most of the starting nod. He grabbed two steals and a rebound and dished out an assist in the opening five minutes as the Tigers raced to a 13-5 lead.

"I haven't been out there for a lot of significant minutes at all," Anderson, Jr. said. "I just wanted to concentrate on my defense and that's what I did."

After that opening salvo, Anderson returned to the bench, sitting with his father for the final 35 minutes. Twice, Oklahoma cut the lead to five points. The Sooners drew within 26-21 in the first half. Missouri answered with six straight points. The margin was 39-34 after a 7-2 Sooner run to start the second half. This time, the Tigers poured in ten straight in response.

"We were looking for another run ourselves," J.T. Tiller said. "Whatever we needed to do to keep them at arm's length, that's what we were trying to do."

Tiller was his usual self against the Sooners. The blue-collar kid who has made his name on defending some of the league's best guards did not disappoint. While Griffin had his normal night (16 points and 21 rebounds), the Sooner guards got little going when it counted. Tony Crocker scored just two points. Austin Johnson had 11, but those mostly came late when the game was nearly out of reach. Perhaps most impressively, all-world freshman Willie Warren scored seven points on 3-of-11 shooting and turned it over seven times.

"J.T. Tiller, my guy has to be the defensive player of the year," Carroll said. "He really stepped up again and helped us a lot going from one guy to the next."

But the heroes, as they have been all season, were many. There were four Tigers in double figures. Justin Safford hit two monumental three-pointers in the first half. Matt Lawrence grabbed four rebounds to go with his seven points. And the entire Tiger team made sure Griffin's supporting cast would not lend enough help for the Sooners to win.

"We worked on it all week to try to guard him one-on-one," Leo Lyons said. "Sometimes it was a double, sometimes it wasn't. Just not giving him that double-team like he sees throughout the whole year just made those other guys try to find something different to do."

In the end, the Sooners did the same thing the other 17 teams did at Mizzou Arena. They lost. The Tigers went to 25-and-5 overall, 18-and-0 at home.

"To do it with a group of guys like these guys is amazing," Carroll said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. Basically, this season has been a dream come true."

"We know if we do the right thing," Lyons said, "We can beat anybody in the country."

The Tigers proved that on Wednesday night.

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