By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
R.J. Leverette ignited Missouri Southern’s offense at the beginning of each half and the Lions decked MIAA-leading Central Missouri 83-71 Saturday night before almost 2,000 fans at the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center.
Leverette popped in a career-high 23 points — one higher than his former high at Emporia State — to lead four players in double figures for the Lions (11-10, 6-7 MIAA). Effective from beyond the arc and on drives to the basket, Leverette hit 9-of-12 shots, including 5-of-6 3-pointers, and he had 16 points in the first half.
Marquis Addison tallied 20 points, eight rebounds and six assists for the Lions. He made all 10 of his free-throw attempts, and the first one with 3:10 remaining was the 1,000th point of his career.
Jordan Talbert scored 11 points and blocked eight shots for the Lions, and Cameron Cornelius contributed 10 points and three assists.
“Some guys are starting to grow up a little bit,” Corn said. “Blaine (Miller, freshman forward who had nine points, eight rebounds, two blocks and two steals) gave us some really good minutes. I thought Greg (Renfroe, four points, three rebounds) played well. I thought our whole bench played well.
“Obviously ‘Cam’ made some plays, Marquis and Jordan we expect to make plays. I felt everybody contributed. I don’t think anybody had a bad game tonight.”
Leverette’s first two treys came from the left wing and the top of the circle, and Austin Wright also connected for 3 as the Lions jumped out to a 19-8 lead in the first 11 minutes.
“I knew Central was the No. 1 team in our conference,” said Leverette, who also had three assists and four steals. “I knew they were going to come out physical and aggressive, and if we didn’t hit them with the first punch, it might be a long night. I just came out aggressive and was hoping things would go our way, which they did, and we didn’t let go for the rest of the night.”
The Mules (15-6, 9-4), who slipped into a tie for first place with Fort Hays State, ran off 13 straight points to claim their only lead, 21-19 with 6:56 left in the half..
But Leverette hit a jumper in the lane and two 3s in a 93-second span as the Lions regained a 31-23 lead.
The Lions stretched a 43-33 halftime lead to 51-37 in the first four minutes of the second half. Leverette’s straight-on 3 capped the spree, and he also scored the first basket on a sweet hesitation dribble on his way to the goal.
“It was just kind of those things,” Leverette said with a smile. “It happened in the flow of the game, just getting lost in the game. It just happened.”
“R.J. played his best game as a Lion,” MSSU coach Robert Corn said. “Not only did he shoot the ball well — he shot it great — but he ran our basketball team. There were two or three times where he changed speeds, got inside the lane, had that burst of acceleration to get by people and made good decisions. He played really strong with the ball and played his best game for us.”
Guard Widgett Washington scored 19 points to lead the Mules, followed by Alex Dean with 17, Dominique Long with 12, Charles Hammork with 11 and Matt Webb with 10.
The Lions shot 51 percent (34-of-67) and sank 19-of-23 free throws, including 12-of-13 in the last three minutes. The Mules, after missing eight of their first nine shots, finished 35-of-68 (52 percent), and they were 8-of-11 at the line.
The Lions return to action Wednesday night at Northeastern State.