In a game with few remarkable defensive moments, Missouri’s final two stands against Arkansas to preserve Thursday’s 86-85 victory may have provided the greatest satisfaction to Tigers coach Frank Haith.
And the most important takeaway heading into Saturday’s home game against Tennessee.
“We have to get better defensively,” Haith said. “We’re a pretty good offensive team. We need to be consistent on the defensive end. If you want to win ball games, you have to make plays and I thought our guys made plays in the end.”
Jabari Brown, for sure. His runner in the lane with 12 seconds to play proved to be the game-winner.
The opportunity was created because of defensive plays Missouri made before and after.
The Razorbacks had the ball and a one-point lead after Mizzou’s Jordan Clarkson missed a free throw with 54 seconds remaining. Arkansas wouldn’t be able to run out the game, but it could make things difficult for the Tigers.
But the Tigers played solid defense. Some 25 seconds into the shot clock, Arkansas had little going. Guard Rashad Madden stepped on the sideline for a turnover.
Brown put Missouri ahead, but the Razorbacks would have enough time — 10 seconds after a timeout — to respond.
Madden drove to the basket from the right side, a play Missouri anticipated. Clarkson defended without fouling, and when Madden reached the basket, his shot was further adjusted by good defensive positioning by big man Ryan Rosburg and Brown, who had rotated over.
When the shot was strong, Rosburg shielded Arkansas’ Bobby Portis enough to prevent an offensive rebound, and a much-needed triumph was secured.
For a Missouri team that had played competitively in losses to Kentucky, Florida and Mississippi, the narrow victory produced an arm’s-raised celebration. With a stop to two similar late in games during the losing streak, who knows where the Tigers might be?
Missouri’s at-large NCAA Tournament profile had slipped with each loss entering Thursday. Because Missouri had no games remaining against league leaders Florida and Kentucky, the opportunities to face quality Southeastern Conference opponents to build a solid tournament resume are few.
But Saturday’s game does just that. Tennessee and the Tigers have similar profiles, with RPIs in the 40s and an inability to gain much momentum in conference play. The Vols’ SEC record is 6-5, the Tigers’ 5-6.
The contest could be shaped as one between NCAA Tournament bubble teams, with the loser losing ground.
“When you’re coming off a loss, it feels like you have to regroup,” Brown said. “After this game, there are still things to work on, but it doesn’t feel like we have to regroup.”