Leadership — or a lack thereof — was head coach Dana Ford’s reason for the Bears’ success tonight. But it was also a reason for their shortcomings.

In the 71-69 win over Murray State, the Missouri State men’s basketball team lacked leadership early on.

A familiar starting four returned for the Bears, but one change stuck out: the removal of senior forward Kabir Mohammed. Freshman Ja’Monta Black earned his first start in maroon while seniors Lamont West, Tulio Da Silva, Keandre Cook and redshirt junior Tyrik Dixon remained as the same starters.

“That was a coach’s decision,” Ford said about Mohammed’s lack of minutes. “I anticipate him getting back in the rotation. We need more leadership from him, Keandre and Tulio.”

Last year, Ford said the same thing about seniors Jarred Dixon and Obediah Church. He sat the two instead of starting them in a home game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Dec. 22, 2018. Dixon owned up to the leadership challenge and started every game thereafter, while Church didn’t and left the team on Jan. 28.

“Tulio, Keandre and Kabir are going to have to lead the team,” Ford said. “We cannot be a coach-led team. I’m the coach, I lead the program — every facet of the program. They’re the players, they need to lead the team.

“When I have to come off of my program leadership stand to lead the team, that’s not good because I’m going to make the best decision for the program, so these players have to lead the team, and that’s all we’ve been lacking is leadership.”

The Tuesday game against Murray State started slow and leadership-less, with a 2-2 score for the first six minutes.

Scoring really got going after the first media timeout, but it wasn’t pretty basketball. The Bears had nine turnovers in the first half alone. The Bears’ leading scorer, Cook, finished the first half with zero points and just one shot attempt.

The second half continued with the slow pace for the Bears.

While the Bears made shots, the Racers battled with them and eventually tied it at 40 with 11:41 on the clock.

Missouri State was unable to take the lead back until freshman point guard Ford Cooper Jr. hit a triple, his only made shot of the game, with 6:52 left in the game.

“Ford Cooper was phenomenal,” Ford said. “He’s been phenomenal every opportunity we’ve given him.”

Murray State battled to the finish, but the Bears were able to pull away with the win. Murray State’s Tevin Brown lobbed up a shot as time expired to make it a two-point win for Missouri State.

“Hats off to Murray State — they’re a real good team, a well coached team, an NCAA team,” Cook said.

Those final seven minutes showed what the Bears are capable of, and Ford said that change happened because of leadership from Cook and Da Silva. Cook, despite the blank first half, finished with 15 points. His first points came from a jumper with 8:30 on the clock.

“Cook was held scoreless until the last eight minutes, I think, and the sucker got 15 points,” Ford said. “If I could get on the court and give it to Cook, I would, but I can’t.”

Da Silva finished with his second double-double of the season. His 16 points led the Bears.

“The look in the eye of Tulio and Cook — it was no doubt who was leading us down the stretch, it was no doubt who was gonna make a big play,” Ford said. “The voice in the timeout — who’s talking? … Hearing Cook and Tulio talk, that’s leadership. Serving others is leadership.”

The Bears stay in Springfield for finals week, facing Mississippi Valley State on Friday, Dec. 6, at 7 p.m. and Wednesday, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m.

Other notables from the game

Missouri State is now 4-1 when it wins the tip. The Bears have lost every game they’ve lost the tip in.

The Bears averaged 13.38 offensive rebounds per game going into the Murray State matchup. Murray State only allowed six offensive rebounds by the Bears, three of which were by Da Silva.

“I was disappointed in that. What (Murray State’s Anthony Smith) did to us, that’s what we do to people,” Ford said. “We told them in the scouting that 24 is like a Missouri State, and he just whipped us on the glass — and almost won them the game. Luckily, he fouled out.”

Smith ended with 12 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes before fouling out with 1:05 left in the second half.

Freshmen got big minutes for the Bears against Murray State. Cooper Jr. ended with 22, Isiaih Mosley had 15 and Ja’Monta Black’s first start gave him 32 minutes on the court.

“I thought those guys did a phenomenal job tonight against a well respected opponent — against a program that knows how to win,” Ford said. “Here’s one thing I can tell you about our freshmen: they’re not afraid. They’ve been in big games, even in high school. They do a good job.

“And they want to be coached — they’re not always happy with the coaching, but at least they want to be coached. And I believe in my heart they wanna be coached by me, so they need to play a little more because they do a good job when they’re out there.”

“The freshmen stepped up big,” Cook said. They executed down the stretch. We needed it. They’re fitting in pretty good. They don’t really look like freshmen — they’ve got a bright future.”

Ford said Cooper Jr. was really good the last seven minutes when Tyrik Dixon, the Bears’ starting point guard, was in foul trouble.

Gaige Prim has been what Ford calls a “precautionary” resting period. Ford said after Tuesday’s game Prim will be “load managed” due to an injury that could turn become more serious. Ford would not say what the injury specifically was.