COLUMBIA, S.C. — By the middle of the second half Thursday, the smiles were evident and pervasive on the Missouri bench. And considering everything the Tigers have been through this season on the road, why wouldnt they be?
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Missouri still had 10 minutes left to play at South Carolina, but the Tigers, who had used a blistering offensive attack to take a 25-point lead at that time, were well on their way to earning their second road win of the season, a 90-68 victory before an announced crowd of 9,360 at Colonial Life Arena.
We played really well offensively, said senior guard Keion Bell, who scored a game-high 24 points. About as well as we can play.
The stats would back this up, though on one hand, you could argue Missouri, which improved to 20-8, 9-6 in the Southeastern Conference, simply did what it was supposed to do against the struggling Gamecocks, who dropped to 13-15 overall, 3-12 in the SEC and have now lost 10 of their last 12 games.
But after so many disappointing road moments and there have been plenty this year, as four of Missouris previous five road games ended up being single-digit losses the Tigers were going to enjoy this convincing and dominating effort, one in which Missouri shot almost 70 percent from the field, dominated the rebounding battle 28-20 and generally answered coachs Frank Haiths calls for improved effort after a 90-83 loss to Kentucky on Saturday.
Youve got to have toughness against toughness, said Haith, whose team improved to 2-7 in true road games this season.
The win is perhaps even more satisfying when you remember the Gamecocks are coached by Frank Martin, the defensive-minded coach whose K-State teams handed Missouri two of its five losses last season. And dont forget, South Carolina gave the Tigers all they could handle on Jan. 22, when Missouri prevailed 71-65 at Mizzou Arena.
Of course, the Tigers didnt have senior starters Keion Bell and Laurence Bowers in that game due to injury, but that would not be the case Thursday. While Bowers finished with a modest statline (six points, three rebounds), Bell made his presence known early and often, scoring 18 points by halftime to help Missouri build a 45-38 lead.
However, you could argue the Tigers lead could have and should have been more. South Carolina overcame two separate nine-point deficits in the half, thanks largely to its long-distance marksmanship. The Gamecocks, who entered the game as the worst-shooting team in the SEC, shot 58 percent from the field in the first half and went seven for 12 from three-point range.
They made some tough shots, Haith said. Our defense wasnt great, but it wasnt horrible. I thought we just stayed after it and kept contesting shots to the point we were able to get some stops.
But even South Carolinas hot shooting wasnt enough to overtake Missouri by the break, as sophomore guard Jabari Brown teamed up with Bell to power a strong offensive attack. Brown had 10 of his 23 points by halftime, as he and Bell rebounded after combining for only 15 points against Kentucky.
Missouri, which led by as many as 13 points against Kentucky, made sure Thursdays game wouldnt be a repeat of that collapse, as the Tigers opened the second half with a vengeance. After a basket by Bell, Alex Oriakhi (18 points) was rewarded for a steal when he hustled downcourt and completed a three-point play.
South Carolina turned the ball over on its next possession, and Brown finished through contact to make the score 52-40. He then beat his defender on a backdoor cut to extend Missouris lead to 14, and Oriakhi completed the 12-2 run when he hammered home a feed down low despite the contact and made the ensuing free throw to make the score 57-42 and prompt a South Carolina timeout.
Missouri kept the heat on from there, while the Gamecocks struggled to get anything going offensively. South Carolina only shot 31 percent from the field after the break, which Phil Pressey said allowed the Tigers to get out in transition and hurt the Gamecocks.
Pressey, who finished with nine assists and three turnovers and didnt attempt a single shot, has taken some criticism for some late-game turnovers, particularly on the road. But on Thursday, he was intent on getting others involved.
I like getting my guys easy buckets, Pressey said. When everybody scores, everybody is happy.