KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — He looked over at his head coach just seconds after the ball landed out of bounds, another road loss for his team all but sealed.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Once again this season, Phil Pressey hoisted the most important shot of the game for Missouri. And once again, he came up short.
Pressey’s missed three-pointer — an airball with 12.6 seconds left and Missouri trailing Tennessee by three — was the last dagger in a disappointing loss for the Tigers, who could only foul and watch the Vols seal a crucial 64-62 win before a capacity crowd of 21,767 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
There were other reasons for the loss, which dropped Missouri to the No. 6 seed in the Southeastern Conference tournament. Take Tennessee’s 18-10 offensive rebounding advantage, which allowed the Vols — who desperately needed a win to pad their NCAA Tournament resume — to score 16 second-chance points.
But Pressey’s missed shot, which came seven seconds after he grabbed a defensive rebound, brought to mind other late-game struggles this season. Despite finishing with 10 points, nine assists and three turnovers, Pressey has committed a late crucial turnover or a missed shot in five of Missouri’s seven SEC road losses, all of which went to overtime or were decided by three or fewer points.
“I wanted us to keep doing what we were doing and attacking the paint,” said Missouri coach Frank Haith of that possession, which came with Missouri trailing 62-59. “I didn’t want that shot. It’s as simple as that.
“We had a stretch there where we were scoring, getting to the rim on the quick, two-ball screen stuff or L-Bo (Laurence Bowers) was wide open on the throw back. I didn’t want that shot.”
When a reporter began to ask why Pressey has taken — and continues to take — similar shots with poor results, Haith quickly interjected before the question was completed.
“I don’t know,” Haith said. “I can’t answer it.”
The disappointment was evident on the face of Haith, whose team could have earned a No. 3 seed and a bye to Friday’s quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament with a victory. Instead, the Tigers, who finished the regular season 22-9 and 11-7 in the SEC, will have to settle for a single bye. They will play either No. 11 seed Texas A&M or No. 14 seed Auburn in the second round Thursday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
The Tigers came out strong in the first half and led 13-7, thanks to nine quick points by Bowers, who eventually picked up two fouls within a minute and was forced to the bench with 13 minutes, 25 seconds left. Then senior forward Alex Oriakhi picked up his second foul with 7:52 left.
Without its two best big men the rest of the half, Missouri missed 10 straight shots at one point. Tennessee went on a 15-10 run and tied the score 29-29 at halftime.
“We really weathered the storm,” Haith said. “The way this game was going there was no way I was going to keep them (Oriakhi and Bowers) out there because they would have gotten their third foul.”
In the second half, neither Bowers — who scored a team-high 20 points — and Oriakhi were able to keep Tennessee sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes of the glass. Stokes, a 6-foot-8, 270-pounder, finished with 13 points and a team-high 13 rebounds. Tennessee finished with 45 rebounds to MU’s 32.
“We just didn’t compete on the boards,” Haith said. “They were plus-13 on the glass and that killed us. (They had) 18 offensive rebounds and that, to me, did us in, (just) our inability to play with great toughness when the ball was on the glass.”
Even still, there was a point in the second half where Missouri seemed primed to run away with it. A 6-0 run gave the Tigers an eight-point lead, their biggest of the game, and later, a two-handed slam by Bowers and a free throw by Keion Bell gave Missouri a 53-49 lead with a little under seven minutes left.
But Tennessee held MU scoreless over the next four minutes and went on an 11-0 run for a 60-53 lead. Baskets by Bell and Pressey cut the deficit to three, but Tennessee guard Josh Richardson stole the inbounds pass from Pressey on the Tigers’ next possession.
The two teams traded baskets and then Missouri, trailing 62-59 with less than a minute to play, got a stop. McRae, who scored a team-high 15 points, hoisted a long three that missed with the shot clock winding down.
Pressey got the rebound and hustled down the court, airballing the potential game-tying three. Two free throws by Trae Golden made the score 64-59 with 11 seconds left, and though Missouri made a late three-pointer in the game’s waning seconds, Tennessee improved to 19-11 and 11-7 in the SEC.
Afterward, Haith was clearly unhappy about Pressey’s judgment on the late three-pointer. But both he and Bowers seemed to be just as frustrated with the lack of grittiness the Tigers displayed in a game with real stakes.
“This game, we learned that if we don’t rebound, we get beat,” Bowers said. “They were just tougher than us, point blank.”