Missouri is still learning how to finish games, how to close out an opponent without any drama. High-profile freshmen and also some veterans who endured years of losing under a previous regime make up the Tigers roster, and neither group has much experience winning at this level.
There will be more to learn from this one, a 62-59 win over Central Florida. The Tigers nearly blew a 10-point lead they had with just more than 10 minutes remaining.
But first the good news for Mizzou: The Tigers broke a 36-game losing streak in true road games. And this win came a game after Missouri imploded against now-No. 19 West Virginia, which pressed Missouri into submission and caused the Tigers to blow a 16-point lead in less than the final eight minutes of the AdvoCare Invitational championship game on Sunday in this same city.
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Something similar almost happened this time. Central Florida got within two points of Missouri twice during the game’s final two-and-a-half minutes.
The first time happened when Central Florida’s A.J. Davis converted an and-one play that capped a nearly eight-minute, 17-9 UCF run during which Davis scored seven points.
Then, with less than a minute remaining, Terrell Allen hit a three-pointer to trim Missouri’s lead to 59-57 with 36 seconds left.
Senior Jordan Barnett had to hit three straight free throws to secure the game for Mizzou.
“We gave them life again,” Barnett said. “We can’t keep doing that. We’ve got to put our foot on their throat while we’re ahead.”
Turnovers doomed Missouri against West Virginia. In this game against UCF, though, the Tigers only gave the ball away twice in the second half and just nine times in all. But UCF made 13 of 24 shots in the second half.
Facing UCF’s 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall, Missouri’s strategy was to double-team the junior from Senegal almost every time he posted up. That left Knights open, and in the second half, they hit shots.
“They’re a home team,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said of UCF. “They mustered up some energy.”
The Tigers’ defensive strategy worked better in the first half. When Missouri went on an eight-minute scoreless stretch in the first half, Central Florida — a team that failed to score 50 points in either of two consecutive games coming into this one — only mustered eight points of its own.
MU freshman Jeremiah Tilmon, who has shown flashes of brilliance this season but also a tendency to be over-aggressive and is foul prone, held his own against Fall. Tilmon scored six early points for MU. More importantly: He had just two first-half fouls. Tilmon finished with 14 points and seven rebounds.
“It’s amazing,” Martin said. “It’s the first time we played a big guy where pretty much every time down we had to guard him in the post, and Jeremiah didn’t foul out of the game.”
Missouri tied the game at 21-21 with less than three minutes remaining in the first half, when Mizzou’s Kassius Robertson hit a three-pointer. A play later, he hit another one with 1:57 left in the half. That gave Mizzou its first lead since it was 7-6 just a few minutes into the game.
Robertson scored eight points during a 15-3 run Missouri used to close the half.
“We could have paid a little more attention to him,” Central Florida coach Johnny Dawkins said of Robertson, who made 5 of 7 three-point attempts.
Robertson and Barnett combined for 36 points and made 13 of 23 shots.
After Central Florida’s Chad Brown scored six straight points for UCF to bring the Knights within two with more than 13 minutes remaining, Barnett responded with a floater off of the backboard. Tilmon then hit two baskets, including a tip-in, and Barnett hit a three-pointer to give Missouri the 10-point lead that it would almost blow.
Barnett indicated that the crowd of just more than 5,000 might have rattled the Tigers near the end of this game. There will be many more people than that at MU’s next real test, the annual Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis on Dec. 23.
A win in that game would prove more about the Tigers. But this was, at the very least, “a step,” Barnett said.