Missouri won its road conference opener for the first time in four seasons, overtaking Auburn in the closing minutes Saturday for a 70-68 victory at Auburn Arena.
Senior forward Earnest Ross, who played two seasons at Auburn from 2009-11, made four free throws in the final 94 seconds as No. 21 Missouri rallied for its first Southeastern Conference victory this season after opening conference play with a thud Wednesday in an overtime loss against Georgia at home.
“Our guys showed great grittiness and toughness,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “Winning is hard. You’re coming off a tough loss, but our guys really found a way.”
Neither team led by more than six points at any point in a game that featured eight ties and 14 lead changes, the last coming on Ross’ free throws at the 1:34 mark as many in the crowd of 7,181 rained down an “Auburn reject” chant.
“I heard it a lot and I was expecting it already,” said Ross who scored 16 points, made all eight free-throw attempts and yanked down seven rebounds. “Coach was just telling me to keep my composure and be mature about everything. That’s what I tried to do.”
Those charity tosses turned a 67-66 deficit into a one-point lead for Missouri before Ross added two insurance free throws with 29 seconds left before Auburn’s final gasp.
The SEC’s leading scorer, senior Chris Denson, drove hard to the bucket and drew the fifth foul on Missouri freshman Johnathan Williams III with 5 seconds left, but that was after Auburn ran off more than 20 seconds in a failed bid to launch a potential game-tying three-pointer.
“Man, that was a great possession,” Haith said. “We could bottle that up. We really did a great job guarding their reactions and what we thought they were looking for and switching out. We showed great intensity.”
Denson, who only scored 11 thanks largely to junior Jabari Brown, made the first free throw but missed the second before Missouri freshman Torren Jones stepped on the baseline after grabbing the rebound, providing yet another last gasp for Auburn.
Finally, freshman point guard Wes Clark tipped away Auburn’s long inbound pass with 2.9 seconds left to ice the victory, which ended with a chorus of boos when officials declined to whistle Brown for a travel or stepping out of bounds after securing Clark’s deflection.
“The formula is always protect your home court and steal a couple on the road,” Haith said. “We got started off on a bad foot. We’ve got to steal one now. We didn’t protect our home court the other night, but I’m glad to see our guys come out here, be gritty and tough it out and get a W.”
Missouri, 13-2 and 1-1 in the SEC, dominated on the boards, outrebounding Auburn 44-28 and survived a 33-percent shooting night — 17 of 52 overall — by going 31 for 41 at the free-throw line.
“That was the emphasis before the game was rebounds,” said junior Jordan Clarkson, who led Missouri with 20 points. “Everybody was trying to crash and we were trying to get boards. It was one of those grind-it-out games we had to get to the line and finish.”
Junior K.T. Harrell led all scorers with 27 points for Auburn, which went 14 for 26 at the line and only four of nine in the second half.
During the first half, Missouri shrugged off 10 turnovers and a frigid shooting performance — eight of 26 from the field — to avoid its fifth halftime deficit in the last seven games.
Despite sitting much of the first half with two fouls, Brown, who scored 15, rifled in a deep three with 7 seconds left before halftime, capping an 8-0 run to close the period and lifting Missouri to a 33-30 lead.
Playing without senior Tony Criswell, Missouri got some critical contributions from seldom-used bench players — most notably Jones, , who finished with career-highs in points (four) and rebounds (11) — in a first half that featured five ties and eight lead changes.