COLUMBIA — Missouri basketball coach Frank Haith made it clear that he wanted to see his team execute its offense better against Vanderbilt on Saturday.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
However, it’s safe to say the performance he got probably surpassed even his highest expectations.
Missouri turned in possibly its best effort of the season during the first half of an 81-59 victory, dominating the Commodores in every facet of the game as the Tigers jumped out to an insurmountable 49-20 halftime lead before a delirious sellout crowd of 15,061 at Mizzou Arena.
“Coach Haith has been on us like crazy trying to get us to run our offense efficiently,” said junior point guard and co-captain Phil Pressey.
They did just that in a performance that was a far cry from the Tigers’ recent offensive outings, which include a 49-point game in a loss to Mississippi and a 52-point game in a loss to Florida over the past two weeks, both season lows.
But both of those games were on the road, and against the Commodores, Missouri once again found life at Mizzou Arena — where the Tigers are undefeated this season — much more hospitable.
Particularly during the first half, when Missouri fell behind 11-8 after allowing Vanderbilt to make a few open jumpers to start the game. But the Tigers could soon do no wrong, as they clamped down on defense, suffocated the Commodores’ shooters, and took off downcourt after missed shots and turnovers to run their offense to perfection.
“We played inside out but I thought that was our best game on (the defensive) side of the court,” Haith said. “That really spurred us.”
Missouri, which forced 10 turnovers and had six steals, quickly took a small lead on baskets by sophomore guard Jabari Brown and senior center Alex Oriakhi, but senior guard Keion Bell — who missed MU’s last game with an ankle sprain and finished with 12 points – energized the crowd with three straight layups, two of which came off steals he forced.
From there, Missouri — which led 19-11 — simply could not be stopped offensively. After hearing Haith preach the need for improved ball movement and better shot selection all week, the Tigers followed their coach’s edict and started to find all the open shots they could ever want, both in transition and in the half court, as they mounted a ridiculous 38-4 run. Dead serious.
They didn’t miss much during the run — the Tigers made seven threes during that stretch — but when they did, someone down low — often senior center Alex Oriakhi, who finished the game with 18 points and 12 rebounds — was there to clean up the mess with a putback. Oriakhi also scored on a handful of designed post touches, which helped space the floor for Missouri’s shooters during the run.
“When we fed A.O. and he had everything going, they started to collapse more and that opened everything up for us on the three-point line,” said Brown, who finished with a team-high 21 points.
The Tigers were even more impressive defensively, where they allowed the Commodores — who entered ranking next-to-last in the SEC in scoring at 59.8 points per game — to score only four points during a 12 minute, 47-second stretch and found themselves ahead 46-15 with two minutes, 40 seconds left.
By the end of the half, Missouri — which led by 29 — was an impressive 17 of 31 (54.8 percent) from the field, including 8-for-15 from three-point range, which is particularly noteworthy considering Vanderbilt is one of the top teams in the country in defending the three-pointer. Entering the game, the Commodores were holding opponents to a 29.6 percent clip from behind the arc.
But Missouri continued to fill it up in the second half, despite a sluggish start that saw Vanderbilt cut its deficit to 53-36 at one point. The Tigers quickly woke up, returned to their first-half formula of success, and saw their lead once again grow to as many as 30.
While Oriakhi and Brown handled most of Missouri’s scoring load, Pressey controlled the pace of the game and had 12 points and six assists, while junior guard Earnest Ross had nine points and seven rebounds as he helped MU pound Vanderbilt 40-18 on the glass.
“We were just physically overmatched today,” said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose team was led by junior forward Rod Odom (17 points) and dropped to 8-10, 2-4 in the SEC.
Meanwhile, Missouri — which improved to 15-4, 4-2 in the SEC — won its second straight game since its worst loss in five years, a 31-point road defeat to Florida on Jan. 19 that actually mirrored several aspects of Saturday’s game, just with everything going the Gators’ way.
“We know what it feels like to be on the other end,” Oriakhi said, “so you definitely try to be humble about it.”