COLUMBIA — For the most part, No. 10 Missouri can officially consider its first league game as a member of the Southeastern Conference a success.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Thanks to balanced scoring and impressive offensive performances by guards Jabari Brown and Phil Pressey, the Tigers improved to 12-2 with an 84-68 victory over Alabama on Tuesday at Mizzou Arena.
Led by Brown, who scored a team-high 22 points, and Pressey, who had 11 points and an arena-record 13 assists, Missouri used unselfishness to pull away in the second half.
“I thought we had a workmanlike attitude in the second half,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “We did a great job of not turning it over, executing down the stretch offensively and making defensive stops.”
However, the game was not without some anxious moments. Senior forward Laurence Bowers, MU’s team’s scoring leader with a 17-point average, left with roughly 6 minutes to go in the second half because of an apparent injury to his right leg. He limped off the court and into the locker room.
“It looks like a MCL sprain maybe, but we don’t know the extent of it,” Haith said of Bowers, who missed all of last season because of an injury to his left knee. “We’re going to look at it (today).”
Haith said Bowers, who will have a MRI done, suffered the injury when he collided with Pressey near the basket. Bowers finished with 16 points and five rebounds.
“I think Phil fell on him, kind of hit him on the side of his leg,” Haith said. “I think (Phil) turned his ankle on the play a little bit.”
Pressey would later downplay his own injury, which was not serious enough to keep him from going toe-to-toe with Alabama guard Trevor Releford.
Releford, a Bishop Miege graduate and brother of Kansas guard Travis Releford, said he wasn’t recruited heavily by Missouri out of high school but managed to keep the Crimson Tide close Tuesday with a game-high 26 points.
“It was a good opportunity to come back and play close to home and for my family to see me play,” said Releford, who said he had close to 30 family members and friends in the stands.
Alabama, 8-6 overall and 0-1 in the SEC, also remained competitive by outrebounding Missouri — which has a reputation for being strong on the boards — 32-27.
Those factors contributed to Missouri taking only a 40-36 lead into the break, as Releford scored 19 points in the first half while the Tigers got outrebounded 16-12. Missouri did get a huge boost in the half from Brown, who went one for nine from the field against Bucknell on Saturday but recovered to shoot seven for 11 Tuesday, including five of seven on three-pointers. Three of those came late in the first half, with Missouri trying to seize control of the game.
“It feels good,” Brown would later say of his performance, “like the basket gets bigger and every shot is going to go in.”
Brown later teamed up with junior guard Earnest Ross, who also rebounded from a one-for-nine shooting night against Bucknell, to bring Missouri fans to their feet at the start of the second half. Brown made two consecutive three-pointers to open the half, and Ross followed with a three from the corner that increased Missouri’s lead to 51-44 and energized the crowd of 13,895.
Ross finished seven of 12 from the field and scored 19 points.
“I tell them, shooters shoot,” Pressey said. “So you might not hit one game, the next you’ll be on fire. You’ve just got to keep playing.”
Alabama kept fighting. Releford made a three with 7 minutes left that cut the Tide’s deficit to 65-59, but that was the closest they got the rest of the way. Brown, Pressey, Ross and senior forward Alex Oriakhi — who joined Bowers as the only Missouri players to score in the game — teamed up to bury Alabama the rest of the way.
Oriakhi, in particular, was dangerous down the stretch, scoring 11 of his 16 points over the last 11 minutes.
“We need Alex to continue to grow and be an offensive threat for us,” Haith said. “We’re a really good team when he becomes that.”
Missouri now enters its first SEC road test against Mississippi on Saturday. It remains to be seen whether the Tigers will be at full strength: they will learn more about Bowers’ status today, and it remains unclear when Tony Criswell, who has missed the last three games because of a broken finger, will return.
But on Tuesday, a night in which the Tigers made history by winning their SEC debut, it should at least comfort Haith some to know that this was a team victory, one where two players who were struggling (Ross and Brown) teamed up with every-night stalwarts such as Bowers, Pressey and Oriakhi to overwhelm an opponent with their offensive balance, a staple of Haith’s motion offense.
“They had guys that stepped up tonight,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said.