Few would dispute that Missouri’s frontcourt hasn’t pulled its weight for much of the season.
But on a day when leading scorers Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson endured lengthy scoring droughts, it was the Tigers’ big men who bailed their team out in a 75-70 victory against Tennessee at Mizzou Arena.
Freshmen Johnathan Williams III and Torren Jones, sophomore Ryan Rosburg, senior Tony Criswell and junior Keanau Post combined for 29 points on 11-of-14 shooting and also snagged 14 rebounds — a massive contribution from a group that had been averaging fewer than 15 points combined.
“We had to bring it,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “Their physicality in the paint area was tremendous, but we got great production out of all our post guys. Every one of those guys that played gave us something positive and that was great to see. We need that as we continue to move forward.”
Facing a Volunteers team that is among the most physical Southeastern Conference squads in the paint, it was perhaps an unexpected day for a breakout performance by the Tigers’ collection of forwards.
“The thing going for us into the game, if Mizzou was to beat us, then their bigs needed to beat us,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said.
That’s exactly what Missouri’s frontcourt did.
Brown and Clarkson entered Saturday’s matchup as the third-highest scoring tandem in NCAA Division I, but Brown went more than 22 minutes without scoring in one stretch and Clarkson went more than 31 minutes between buckets.
“I love it, man,” Brown said. “You guys are always asking us how we feel about our bigs. You know, we’ve confidence in them, and I feel like they’re getting better and better every game.”
Missouri, 18-7 and 6-6 in the SEC, built a quick 10-point lead by scoring 13 of its first 15 points in transition.
Brown, who finished with a team-high 24 points, led the way, scoring 11 points in the opening seven minutes and change. His three-pointer with 12:55 remaining pushed Missouri’s lead to 19-9.
Of course, those were was also Brown’s last points until the 10:30 mark in the second half.
The Tigers led 28-20 with 8:06 remaining when senior Earnest Ross, who finished with 15 points, scored yet another transition bucket.
But those were the last points by any of Missouri’s guards until Ross’ steal and uncontested dunk with 15 seconds left in the half.
In between, Post, Williams and Jones combined for all 11 of the Tigers’ points, including Williams’ alley-oop in the closing minute from Clarkson that helped establish a 41-37 halftime lead.
That much-maligned frontcourt — even without Rosburg, who played only six minutes after picking up two quick fouls — scored 19 points on eight-of-nine shooting with eight rebounds in the first half.
“Coach kept telling them, ‘Tennessee’s coming after you all,’ so I think they felt like they had something to prove today,” Brown said. “They’re just getting better and putting in work in practice.”
When Tennessee, 15-10 and 6-6 in the SEC, surged into the lead early in the second half, it was Jones who helped restore order with a tip-in off a Clarkson miss and a put-back when Ross had a shot blocked in transition.
Jones finished with a career-high eight points.
However, foul trouble was mounting for Missouri’s frontcourt.
Williams — who scored 10 points, his first double-figure night since Dec. 28 at North Carolina State — picked up his fourth foul with 9:37 remaining, leaving each of the five forwards except Post with four fouls.
Fortunately, by that time Brown had rediscovered his stroke and closed with 13 points down the stretch to help Missouri fend off Tennessee.
Fittingly, it was Rosburg who helped polish off the win. He only played 13 minutes and had only two points with no rebounds, but he took a charge against Tennessee senior Jordan McRae, who led all scorers with 31 points, with 50.3 seconds that turned the tide for good.
“Being in foul trouble, I didn’t really get into rhythm, so I really didn’t do much the first 39 minutes,” Rosburg said. “I knew the last minute when I was in there I had to do something to help us win.”
Eventually, Missouri iced the win when Brown stole an inbounds pass and flipped it to Williams, who hit two free throws with 4.3 seconds left, pushing it to an insurmountable five-point lead.