COLUMBIA — After blowing a late nine-point lead in a loss to UCLA in its last game, No. 12 Missouri entered its Saturday afternoon showdown against Bucknell eager to prove it still knew how to close a good team out.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
The task proved to be easier said than done against the respected mid-major, as the Bison often controlled the tempo, hit several big shots and even became the first team to outrebound Missouri all season (39-38).
All of that only buttressed the fact that by the end of the game — which Missouri won 66-64 in front of a crowd of 13,856 at Mizzou Arena — the Tigers had certainly shown some growth since their 97-94 road loss to the Bruins on Dec. 28.
“I think we’re a pretty good team, and pretty good teams learn from games like UCLA,” said senior forward Laurence Bowers, who finished with 16 points against Bucknell. “It was a big teaching point for us on how to finish a game.”
During a second half in which neither team led by more than four at any point on Saturday, the Tigers prevailed by keeping their composure and executing their offensive and defensive sets, all areas in which they experienced breakdowns late against the Bruins.
And once again – and yes, this is becoming a trend – Missouri’s fate seemed to teeter on the play of junior point guard Phil Pressey. After racking up 19 points and a school-record 19 assists in 44 minutes against UCLA — only to see the Tigers lose as he committed a couple turnovers late — Pressey again had his moments on Saturday, scoring a career-high 26 points on 10-of-22 shooting to go with five assists.
“In the second half, he was outstanding,” said Missouri coach Frank Haith, whose team improved to 11-2.
After trailing Bucknell — which dropped to 13-3 — 28-24 at halftime, Pressey came alive after the break, leading the Tigers with 19 second-half points.
“Our goal with him going in was to make him score, hopefully not 26, but to not let him be a distributor, because that really fed them,” said Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen, whose team held Pressey without an assist in the first half.
One way Bucknell attempted to keep Pressey out of the paint was by going under ball screens, essentially giving the junior — who was attempted 63 shots in Missouri’s last three games and made 21 of them — open jumpers from long range. This worked in the first half, but Haith said MU started to bring another screener after the original action in the second half, which allowed Pressey to shoot closer, more open shots.
“We need him to take those open shots and not those tough ones,” Haith said.
Like he did with six minutes left in the second half. With Bucknell leading 52-48, Pressey drilled a deep three to cut the deficit to one. And while Bucknell guard Bryson Johnson answered with a ridiculous three from well behind the three-point line, the Tigers tied the game at 55 on a follow by Bowers and a midrange jumper by Pressey, who started heating up.
“Coach told us to run our offense,” Pressey said. “As easy as it sounds, sometimes we get away from it.”
Pressey proceeded to score Missouri’s next five points, including an open-but-far away three-pointer that put the Tigers ahead 60-57 with roughly three minutes left. And when a jumper by Bucknell cut the deficit to three, Pressey got help, as Missouri answered with an off-balance jumper by Earnest Ross and a steal by Jabari Brown, which gave the Tigers the ball back with one minute, 29 seconds left and a chance to build on a 62-59 lead.
It looked like the Tigers would do just that — Pressey quickly found Ross seemingly wide open under the basket — but a Bucknell player recovered in time to block the shot and force a shot-clock violation.
Bucknell then turned to 6-foot-11 senior forward Mike Muscala — who had scored only four second-half points at that point after dropping 16 in the first half — to get back in the game. Muscala grabbed a rebound off a missed three, made the putback and was fouled by Keion Bell, but blew the potential game-tying free throw to give Missouri the ball back with 40 seconds left.
After a Bucknell foul, Pressey broke the press — the Bison were apparently hesitant to foul him — by finding a streaking Bell wide open for a dunk that made the score 64-61.
Bucknell answered with a putback layup, and Missouri — which got the ball with 13 seconds left — blew a chance to put the game away with Pressey missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving the Bison one last chance to tie or take the lead.
But the Tigers averted disaster when Muscala — who finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds — stepped out of bounds on the ensuing possession, giving Missouri the ball back with 4.1 seconds left.
Ross made two free throws to push the lead to 66-63, and though Brown was promptly whistled for a foul that sent Muscala to the line with 1.9 seconds left, he made the first and missed the second, only to see freshman Stefan Jankovic soar through the air to snatch the rebound and clinch the Missouri victory.
It was, to be sure, they kind of effort that they would have preferred to show late against UCLA. But with the nonconference season over — Missouri opens Southeastern Conference play Tuesday against Alabama — there shouldn’t be much time for reflection going forward.
Instead, Bowers said, there’s only the ongoing process of improving on a day-to-day basis, growth the Tigers saw in themselves on Saturday.
“We didn’t execute down the stretch (against UCLA),” Bowers said. “We wanted to make sure we did that tonight.”