COLUMBIA — Missouri coach Frank Haith knew his team would be tested Tuesday night against South Carolina.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Two of his top seven players were out with injuries, and Haith — who lost to South Carolina coach Frank Martin twice last year when Martin coached Kansas State — was certainly no stranger to the way his teams like to challenge opponents, both mentally and physically.
But for most of the game — a 71-65 Missouri win — Haith could only watch while his blood pressure rose and his team failed the test. Despite playing before a lively home crowd, the Tigers started sluggish, struggled from the field and allowed a gritty South Carolina dictate the tempo and cultivate a lead that grew to as many as 13 in the second half.
“Yeah, I almost took everything off, just so you know,” joked Haith, who actually removed his suit jacket and tie early in the second half. “I’ve had a couple (moments) where you feel like you’re going to pop a blood vessel, and that was one of my top ones.”
But Missouri’s players — perhaps sensing their season was at a crossroads after an embarrassing loss to Florida on Saturday and an impassioned halftime speech by Haith on Tuesday — finally responded to the challenge, displaying toughness and an undeniable amount of moxie down the stretch in a rousing come-from-behind victory before a crowd of 11,830 at Mizzou Arena.
“I’m very encouraged with our toughness late (in the) game and in (the) second half,” Haith said.
But Missouri, which trailed South Carolina 35-27 at halftime after shooting a miserable six-for-30 (20 percent) in the first half (including one-for-14 from three-point range), did not show great urgency, at least at the start of the second half, and soon saw their deficit grow to 41-28 with 17 minutes left. However, the Tigers finally woke up, much to the relief of an increasingly frustrated home crowd. The ensuing run began innocuously, with an Earnest Ross free throw, but was followed by an Alex Oriakhi hook and a fast-break layup by Ross that cut the deficit to eight, brought the crowd to its feet, and forced Martin to call a timeout.
The timeout, however, did not help South Carolina, which immediately scored a basket but allowed Missouri to put together a 15-0 run spearheaded by Oriakhi and sophomore guard Jabari Brown, who scored all 15 of the Tigers’ points during the run. Brown, in fact, almost brought the house down when he followed his game-tying three with a free throw that gave Missouri a 44-43 lead.
After two more baskets by Brown and Oriakhi put MU ahead 48-43, South Carolina finally answered with a layup, ending a scoreless stretch of more than four minutes and halting a 20-2 Missouri run.
The game remained close the rest of the way, as neither team led by more than four. But with the score tied at 61-61 with around three minutes left, South Carolina — which dropped to 11-7, 1-4 in the SEC — managed to take a two-point lead on a layup by guard Bruce Ellington. But Missouri would respond on its next possession, as Ross made two clutch free throws to tie the score.
Ross, who finished with a team-high 21 points and was listed as a game-time decision due to a back injury, wasn’t done yet. After MU got a stop, Ross drilled a long three from the top of the key that put the Tigers ahead 66-63.
South Carolina made a few free throws to put within one with about a minute left, but the Tigers finally pulled away when Ross drove to the basket and kicked it out to Brown, who drilled a wide-open three from the corner that have MU a four-point left with 14 seconds left. Junior forward Tony Criswell made a pair of free throws to ice the win for Missouri, which improved to 14-4 and 3-2 in the SEC.
Haith said his team settled down offensively in the second half when it took better shots.
Oriakhi thought the second-half improvement also had to do with something else.
“I think it was coach’s halftime speech,” said Oriakhi, a senior center who finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds. “He, you know, questioned our toughness, he challenged us.”
Oriakhi responded, as did Brown (17 points, seven rebounds), who both played key roles for Missouri, which was playing without leading scorer Laurence Bowers and starting guard Keion Bell while attempting to bounce back after an 83-52 loss to Florida on Saturday, the program’s worst in five years.
“It’s about (playing with) the energy we need to play with and not feeling sorry for yourself,” Haith said. “You look at handling adversity, you don’t have all our guys, our backs are against the wall…and no one cares about what else is going on. Everybody just wants what you put out there on that court.”