COLUMBIA — After getting embarrassed by Florida in a 30-point loss in Gainesville earlier this season, the Missouri Tigers had plenty of questions to answer entering their rematch against the fifth-ranked Gators on Tuesday.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Had they improved enough in a month to beat one of the best teams in the country?
Could star point guard Phil Pressey play under control against one of the best defensive squads in the nation?
Could Missouri, after several heart-breaking last-second defeats, finally pull out a close win?
It turns out the answer to all three questions was a resounding yes, as evidenced by Missouri’s thrilling 63-60 come-from-behind victory over the Gators. MU rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit in front of an enthusiastic sellout crowd of 15,061 at Mizzou Arena.
“A win against one of the best teams in the country, obviously it’s something you can carry with you the rest of the year,” said Missouri coach Frank Haith, whose team improved to 19-7 overall and 8-5 in the Southeastern Conference.
Particularly when you consider Haith’s team managed to exact a degree of revenge against the Gators, 21-4 overall and 11-2 in the SEC — a team that not only destroyed Missouri in an 83-52 loss on Jan. 19 but is widely considered to be the class of the conference.
However, that game was played at the Florida’s O’Connell Center. Missouri, which is now 82-4 at Mizzou Arena since the 2008-09 season, turned the tables this time against the Gators, despite the lingering distraction of the NCAA’s investigation of the University of Miami, which finally moved forward Tuesday as several parties — including Haith — reportedly received their long-awaited Notice of Allegations.
“I thought our kids showed a lot of heart, lot of determination,” said Haith, who admitted he received his Notice of Allegations just one day after the NCAA announced the results of external review into misconduct by its own enforcement staff investigating the case.
But while that off-the-court news provided plenty of speculation as to what it could mean for Haith’s future, what his team did on the court Tuesday was pretty special. Missouri managed to keep this one within striking distance the whole way despite the fact it had some of the same issues that plagued the Tigers the first time around.
For much of the game, Missouri — which committed 19 turnovers — showed an inability to consistently get good shots against Florida’s stingy defense, which led to Florida leading 49-36 with around 11 minutes left in the game.
Yet, Haith continued to preach the importance of composure to his team. And the Tigers quickly roared to life, cutting the deficit to seven with back-to-back three-pointers by Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross.
Ross, who had 11 points, added two free throws that were followed by a steal by Pressey, who found Keion Bell streaking downcourt for a layup that made the score 49-46.
Pressey then drove to the rim and found a wide-open Laurence Bowers, who scored a team-high 17 points and had 10 rebounds, for a slam that capped a 12-0 run and made it a one-point game.
“We took it one possession at a time,” Haith said. “When you get down 13, there is no 13-point shot, and we did a great job of understanding that.”
Florida, however, answered with a jumper, and each team followed with a basket and a free throw — though a pair of free throws by Brown cut the deficit to 54-53 with 4 minutes left.
Pressey picked up his fourth foul on a converted jumper by Kenny Boynton, who made the free throw and pushed the lead back to 57-53 with 3:45 left. Brown answered with an open three-pointer on an inbounds play, and Pressey gave Missouri its first lead when he took the ball coast-to-coast for an and-one layup that put MU ahead 59-57 with a little under three minutes left.
Florida came up empty on its next possession, but a Mizzou turnover gave the Gators the ball back. Scottie Wilbekin then drilled a step-back three-pointer that put Florida ahead 60-59 with 1:39 left.
Bowers responded with a short jumper that gave MU a 61-60 lead with 1:15 left, and the Tigers got a defensive stop, only to see Pressey — who finished with seven points and 10 assists and committed half as many turnovers (five) as he did the first time the two teams met — jack up an off-balance three. Ross corralled it for the rebound, but was whistled for a travel that gave the Gators the ball back with 19.1 seconds left.
So to win, Missouri needed a stop – which it got, as Boynton missed a long three. Bell hauled in the rebound, was fouled immediately and made both free throws to increase the Tigers’ lead to 63-60 with 3.1 seconds left.
The Gators inbounded the ball and Mike Rosario, who scored a team-high 14 points, airballed a potential game-tying three, giving Missouri a much-needed 63-60 victory.
The win should serve as a huge resume booster for the NCAA Tournament for Missouri, which has been plagued by road woes this season. The Tigers are only 1-6 on the road.
It should also boost the Tigers’ confidence going forward, knowing that after so many disappointing losses, they finally took care of business in a high-pressure situation by answering a fair share of questions that lingered about their resolve and determination.
“We really haven’t had a team win like this,” Pressey said. “I really feel like everybody contributed, everybody played well.”