NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy was understandably proud after his team beat Missouri 64-62 on Friday. Especially when you consider the stakes (the Rebels are on the NCAA Tournament bubble) and the circumstances (they overcame a 14-point second-half deficit).
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
But Kennedy also had no problem saying Missouri, like it has so many other times this season, didn’t exactly help its own cause late in the game.
“We got a gift at the end when they threw us the ball,” Kennedy said.
The “gift” happened with 31 seconds left, when Laurence Bowers overshot Keion Bell while inbounding the ball. Mississippi’s Derrick Millinghaus stole it and, just moments later, converted a floating layup for the game-winner, eliminating the Tigers from the SEC Tournament. The Rebels advanced to Sunday’s SEC title game against Florida with a 64-52 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday.
“I don’t know what really happened,” Kennedy said Friday. “It had to be some kind miscommunication because he just threw it to us.”
Missouri coach Frank Haith said Mississippi defended in front of his players on the inbounds, and that “surprised” Bowers a little bit. But it was the latest in a line of miscues in the clutch, as the Tigers, 23-10, continue to show a frustrating inability to close out games away from Mizzou Arena.
All of the Tigers’ last seven losses have come on the road or on a neutral court, and all were marred by either an ill-advised shot or a turnover in the game’s deciding moments. Junior guard Phil Pressey has been responsible for several of them, but it was Pressey — the source of most fans’ frustration — who put the Tigers in position to win Friday with his deep three-pointer from the top of the key that gave Missouri a 62-59 lead with 47 seconds left.
But Millinghaus tied the score with a three-pointer, Bowers turned it over and Millinghaus — who took advantage of all the attention Missouri was playing hot-shooting guard Marshall Henderson, who was again coming off a screen — shook loose for the game-winning score.
“We did a good job taking Henderson out,” Haith said. “We shrunk the gap on it and Phil helped off of his man to … (but) you know, you’ve got to get back, you’ve got to get back. I think they just made a play based on how we were defending.”
Of course, Missouri — which led 56-46 in the second half — never would have been in that position if didn’t score only two baskets over the last 8:49.
Haith was later asked how tough it is to strike the balance between managing the clock and shortening the game when your team has the lead.
“We did a good job,” Haith said. “Defensively, I thought we allowed them to get to the rim without rotating and taking charges. We got real passive on the defensive end.
“Offensively, I thought we got good shots. We just didn’t make them.”
Pressey, who was asked if Missouri gets too passive toward the end of games, agreed.
“No, not at all,” Pressey said. “We try to work the clock as much as possible and get the best shot as possible. I feel like we got some great looks at the end, we just didn’t knock them down. Myself, I missed a shot or two. And Laurence Bowers he had an open shot or two where he usually makes eight times out of 10. I’m comfortable with him shooting those.”
No one was pointing fingers at Bowers, who finished with nine points and eight rebounds but had averaged 22 and eight in his previous three games.
“We tell him to pick his head up, because Laurence has done tremendous things for us this season and he’s a tremendous teammate and tremendous guy to play with,” senior forward Alex Oriakhi said. “You’re not going to be able to get it back. That’s what I told him.
That’s an approach the Tigers would be wise to take. Despite another disappointing finish, Haith said his team is getting better at understanding defensive concepts and “has grown in a lot of areas.”
With the NCAA Tournament right around the corner, this would be the perfect time for the Tigers to see similar growth in their late-game execution, their most obvious — and possibly fatal — flaw heading into postseason play.
“We’ll get ourselves ready, we’re going to continue to play,” Haith said. “There’s a lot of people whose sneakers won’t be laced up next week. That’s a great opportunity for us … and we’re going to take advantage of that opportunity.”