LAS VEGAS — Usually, it has worked the opposite way for Missouri this season.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
Struggle in the first half. Come on strong after halftime and pull away for a win.
That wasn’t the case Friday during the Tigers’ final game at the Las Vegas Invitational, an 83-70 victory against Nevada that clinched at least a share of the tourney title at Orleans Arena.
Missouri, 7-0, dominated the first half, pulling out to a comfortable 44-26 lead only to have the Wolfpack chip away during the first 12 minutes and change after halftime.
“We executed so well offensively in the first half,” Tigers coach Frank Haith said. “We took good shots, we got to the free-throw line and we were moving the ball.”
Missouri wasn’t as patient and, thus, wasn’t as efficient early in the second half.
“We took some quick shots and the ball didn’t go in, which allowed them to get in transition and they got a little rhythm,” Haith said.
Coming out of a timeout, Nevada senior Deonte Burton, who finished with a team-high 20, hit two free throws to whittle Missouri’s lead to 60-55 with less than eight minutes to play.
Struggling to solve the Wolfpack zone, the Tigers, who shot 52 percent in the first half, had connected on only hit three of the first 16 second-half shots.
That changed with 6 minutes left and Missouri ahead 62-57 when junior Jordan Clarkson beat Nevada’s zone press with a 40-foot pass to senior Earnest Ross.
“I just went to the open space, and I wasn’t sure if he was going to see me,” said Ross, who finished with a Missouri career-high 28 points, including a 12-for-13 performance at the free-throw line. “I told him I would have to make it up to him since I missed my last layup.”
Ross’ layup kicked off a game-clinching 15-6 run for the Tigers, who are 7-0 for third time since 2006-07. Clarkson, who finished with 21 points, scored 11 during the game-clinching spurt. He was named to the all-tournament team with junior Jabari Brown.
“I’m proud of our team,” Haith said. “Once they cut it to five, we made big plays, and that’s what you have to do to win games. You’ve got to make plays, and we stood tall and made big plays to finish the game.”
Of course, Missouri could have made it much easier on itself after a sterling first half.
The Wolfpack couldn’t keep Ross, who also grabbed a game-high nine rebounds, or Clarkson, who finished with four assists, from getting to the rim in the game’s opening minutes as the Tigers jumped in front 11-2.
Brown, who finished with a career-high 24 and also had nine rebounds, then heated up from three-point range, connecting on four first-half three-pointers as the lead reached as many as 21 points before halftime.
“We can’t let up in that second half like we did,” Clarkson said. “We got a little nervous, but we had confidence in ourselves that we could execute and we could score. We just knew we had to get stops.”
One game after freshman Johnathan Williams III and sophomore Ryan Rosburg combined for 28 points in the frontcourt, something Haith said he would emphasize after returning from a five-game NCAA suspension, Missouri’s starting backcourt scored 73 of Missouri’s 83 points.
“Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying,” Haith said. “You’ve got three guys that can go get you 25 points, that’s a luxury. Trust me, I’m not going to ever tell them not to do that. It’s one of those nights, when we have those three guys playing the way they played tonight, we’re going to be tough to beat.”