Playing without leading scorer Jordan Clarkson for most of the first half, Missouri found itself down by a point at halftime Saturday against Hawaii in its first game at the Sprint Center since March 2012.
Buoyed by Clarkson’s return, a dominant second-half performance on the boards and a blistering shooting night from the field, the Tigers managed to rally for a 92-80 victory, improving to 3-0 for the fifth consecutive season.
Missouri’s lead never exactly felt comfortable against a pesky Warriors bunch that seemed to have an answer every time the Tigers threatened to pull away.
“We were counting on our 13,000 fans from Kansas City to be behind us,” said interim coach Tim Fuller, who took over with Frank Haith serving a five-game NCAA suspension. “This is Mizzou West. We continued to reiterate that to our team throughout pregame shoot-around and throughout the whole day — that we don’t lose at home, and this is our home away from home.”
Before the game, Missouri and Sprint Center officials said they expected a crowd between 10,000 and 12,000, but brisk walk-up sales pushed the announced attendance to 13,681.
The black-and-gold speckled crowd watched in delight as Missouri pulled in front by as many as 10 points in the first half despite Clarkson’s absence after he picked up a technical foul — and his second personal foul — for taunting with 16 minutes, 58 seconds remaining in the first half.
In fact, until the closing minutes, when freshman point guard Wes Clark, who serves as Clarkson’s primary backup, also went to the bench because of foul trouble, the Tigers seemed to weather the Warriors’ repeated runs just fine.
Freshman Shane Rector hit two free throws at the 4:56 mark, which pushed the Tigers’ lead to 40-30, but Missouri finally wore down as Hawaii rattled off a 16-2 run and surged into the lead.
The Warriors, who made 16 of 18 free throws in the opening half and nearly matched Missouri on the boards (19-16), led 46-45 at the break.
“We came up here really believing that we could win,” Hawaii coach Gib Arnold said. “We were a little undersized, but we thought we had a shot. Until late in that game, I thought we were right there with them.”
From there, Clarkson and an inspired performance by the Tigers’ frontcourt took over.
Clarkson scored nine of his 13 points in the second half and continued to break down Hawaii’s halfcourt defense at will.
“Jordan Clarkson should probably send a lot of his scholarship money to the new rules committee, because I don’t know how anyone in the country’s going to guard him off the bounce,” Arnold said. “He’s really good, and I think he’s going to make a lot of money because of those rules. He’s a talent.”
Missouri won the rebounding battle 25-14 in the second half, led by senior Tony Criswell, who returned from a two-game suspension and scored 11 points with nine rebounds.
Sophomore center Ryan Rosburg chipped in a career-high nine points with six rebounds, while freshman forward Johnathan Williams III added seven points and eight rebounds.
Even junior center Keanau Post got in on the action, scoring six points — all on dunks — and grabbing a rebound in 9 minutes.
“Obviously, I’m very proud of our frontcourt,” Fuller said. “As I totaled it up, we went for 33 points and 24 rebounds within our frontcourt. That’s been a question everyone’s had, but it was answered tonight. We do have a talented frontcourt, and we’re going to do it by committee.”
The Tigers shot a blistering 57.6 percent from the field, but they might have succeeded in pulling away earlier with a better performance at the free-throw line.
Missouri started the game 10 of 20 from the charity stripe before hitting nine in a row at one point to keep Hawaii at bay. For the game, the Tigers only shot 62.5 percent from the free-throw line, missing 12 of 32 free throws.