It was closer than it should have been down the stretch, but Missouri sent its largest home crowd of the season home happy and leveled its SEC record Saturday with a 82-74 victory against South Carolina.
The crowd of 12,033 really seemed to enjoy the first 38 minutes, which saw the Tigers lead by as many as 20 points and featured 11-0 and 16-0 scoring runs during a dominant first half.
Things got tense late after the Gamecocks, 7-12 and 0-6 in the SEC, whittled that lead to only six points with 1:18 remaining, but Missouri kept South Carolina at bay by going nine of 12 at the free-throw line in the final 67 seconds.
In the end, the Tigers, 15-4 and 3-3 in the SEC, had plenty of positives to take away from the victory.
“Obviously, when you’re able to win, it gives you a little more confidence and we needed to play well,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “I thought we played well. We shared the ball, we had production out of our post guys and those are things we wanted to get accomplished.”
The Tigers, who shot better than 50 percent from the field for the first time in conference play, combined for a season-best 18 assists on 26 field goals.
“We just put an emphasis on being a good teammate and sharing the ball, making the right play and finding open guys,” said junior Jordan Clarkson, who scored 22 with six rebounds. “I think we executed that today, and we’ve got to keep doing that in the rest of league play.”
Missouri also got solid contributions from freshman Johnathan Williams III, who scored eight on three-for-four shooting with six rebounds, and sophomore Ryan Rosburg, who scored eight on four-for-five shooting with four boards.
“I though J3 and Ryan Rosburg were great,” Haith said. “Sixteen points and (10) rebounds, we’ll take that most nights out of both those guys.”
Prior to those tense closing minutes, the usual suspects were up to their usual tricks for the Tigers.
Senior Earnest Ross and junior Jabari Brown, who continued his blistering streak with a team-high 24 points and six rebounds to go with a career-high six assists, had bookend three-pointers during an 11-0 run to open the game.
Eventually, South Carolina battled back within four points before Ross scored nine of his 14 points during a 16-0 run.
The Tigers, who led 38-22 at halftime, seemed to be in control throughout most of the second half before a late 12-2 surge pulled the Gamecocks within 73-67.
“We got a little big sloppy with the ball and let them get a few second-chance opportunities, so we’ve just got to shore up on that end and make sure we close out games the right way,” Brown said.
Senior Brenton Williams — who scored a game-high 32, including 22 in the second half — ignited South Carolina’s final flurry with a bucket in transition, but Missouri demonstrated why it’s the best free-throw shooting team in the SEC to ice the win.
Now, the Tigers embark on a brutal stretch beginning Tuesday at Arkansas. From there, Missouri hosts Kentucky before road games at Florida and Mississippi.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Brown said. “I always want to play against the teams the media says are the best teams in the league. I’m looking forward to challenging them and showing what we can do. I love playing against the best.”