Playing its first true road game of the season Saturday at North Carolina State, No. 25 Missouri didn’t have a lead in the first 36 minutes at PNC Arena.
However, the Tigers led when it mattered, knocking off the Wolfpack 68-64 and burnishing a resume that has a tournament-worthy look with only one non-conference game remaining.
“Our guys showed great character and great toughness after getting down 10 in both halves,” MU coach Frank Haith said. “Everything wasn’t pretty, but I thought we were gritty and we made big plays.”
Missouri, 11-1, showed resiliency in rallying from double-digit deficits in both halves. The Tigers also applied the finishing touch they lacked a week earlier in the season’s first loss against Illinois in the Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis.
With 8:54 remaining, freshman Kyle Washington’s 18-footer pumped North Carolina State’s lead to 53-43 and prompted Haith to call a timeout.
“We just challenged them and said, ‘Guys, one possession at a time,’ ” Haith said. “It’s not a five-point play, it’s not a 10-point play, we’ve got to start one possession at a time.”
The Tigers responded with an 11-1 run, including three-pointers by juniors Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown and senior Earnest Ross. Freshman Johnathan Williams III, who had 10 points and seven rebounds, added a bucket on a strong take down the lane.
Brown’s three tied the game at 54-54 with 6:23 remaining and quieted N.C. State’s best crowd of the season, 16,419.
Missouri took its first lead on Clarkson’s three-point play with 3:51 remaining, but the game still had four lead changes left in it.
Junior Ralston Turner drilled a three-pointer over Brown on the Wolfpack’s next possession.
Clarkson, who finished with a team-high 21 points and four assists, answered with his own three from the top of the key, one of those ice-water-in-the-veins moments with the shot clock winding down.
Turner then staked North Carolina State to a 62-60 lead with 1:39 left on a another three over Brown, but Missouri scored the next seven points and pulled away for the win.
Brown, who scored 17 points, connected on the go-ahead three with 55.1 seconds remaining.
“I had a little bit of space, so I rose up and shot it,” Brown said. “I have confidence in myself. Most of my shots weren’t falling, but I knew I was bound to hit a couple.”
Point guard Anthony Barber then missed the front end of a one-and-one with a chance to give the Wolfpack the lead. Ross, who finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds, secured the carom.
At the other end, Clarkson, who went nine of 10 at the free-throw line, didn’t return the favor. His two free throws made it 65-62 with 20.1 seconds left.
North Carolina State turned again to Turner, trying to knot the game late, but Brown wore the Wolfpack’s top three-point threat like Christmas pajamas and forced a rushed shot that fell short.
“I had a feeling they were going to come back to him,” Brown said. “He had just hit two tough ones in a row. Credit to (assistant) coach (Mark) Phelps. I actually saw that play on film and recognized it, so I was able to stay close to him.”
Senior Tony Criswell and Williams combined for three free throws the rest of the way and iced the game.
North Carolina State sophomore T.J. Warren, the ACC’s leading scorer, led all players with 24 points and matched Ross’ 13 rebounds, but he went scoreless during the final 12:04.
“We pretty much played physical with him without fouling,” Ross said.
The Tigers continued to mix defenses, switching often from zone to man and back again.
“I don’t know if that kept him off balance or not, but I thought it slowed him down a little bit,” Haith said.
Missouri fell behind by 10 points in the first half, but only trailed 32-30 at halftime thanks to a bounty of free throws. The Tigers were 10 of 11 at the line, scoring nine straight points on free throws during a 7:28 field-goal drought.
“I thought we probably played our worst half of basketball all year in the first half,” Haith said. “To be only down two, we told our guys that we thought we had a chance if we started to make some shots.”