Missouri desperately needed that.
Suffering through a two-game skid amid growing chatter that the Tigers may find themselves on the outside looking in when the NCAA Tournament begins, Missouri played host to Mississippi State on Saturday and took out some frustration in a 85-66 victory.
“You always want to bounce back after losses,” junior Jabari Brown said. “This is March now, and we don’t want to lose any games in March. March is our money time, and we’re trying to make the most of it.”
Coach Frank Haith talked midweek about building confidence with two home games before the Tigers, 20-9 and 8-8 in the SEC, wrap up the regular season next Saturday at Tennessee.
Just as important, Missouri had fun again.
“It was good to see everybody contribute and that’s when it’s fun, when everybody has a hand in us winning,” Haith said. “Everybody truly had a hand in us winning today.”
As a result, the Tigers’ confidence surely grew against the Bulldogs, even if they are ranked No. 223 in the NCAA’s RPI and played without leading scorer Craig Sword.
Missouri, which reached the 20-win plateau for the sixth straight season, recorded a season-high 19 assists. For the first time in four seasons, three players — juniors Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown and freshman Wes Clark — had at least five assists in the same game.
Perhaps nobody’s confidence surged more than junior Keanau Post, who had scored 18 points all season and only eight in SEC play before erupting for 14 points on six-of-six shooting with seven rebounds.
“The last few games I’ve been playing well,” Post said. “I think it’s just a buildup from there. Our guards did a great job moving the ball, passing it, so you’ve got to give them a lot of credit for it.”
Freshman Torren Jones wasn’t bad either. He finished with eight points and hit all four attempts from the field, including a couple soaring slam dunks that delighted the crowd of 9,403.
“Keanau’s energy was great,” Haith said. “He and Torren, they were both bouncing around. When they play with that kind of energy, it really helps our team.”
The Bulldogs, 13-16 and 3-13 in the SEC, have now lost at least 11 consecutive conference games for the second straight season and are winless in their last 16 conference road games.
Post scored six of Missouri’s first eight points in the second half. The Tigers’ lead was 53-39 after Post powered in a one-handed dunk.
A few minutes later, Missouri took firm control with a 15-0 run.
Brown, who finished with 21 points to go with five rebounds and five assists, scored five of the first seven points during that spurt before Clark, who finished with seven points and six assists, drilled a three-pointer.
Jones then did his best Superman impression, soaring through the lane for a rim-rocking, two-handed jam.
“You could tell the crowd really loved that one,” said sophomore Ryan Rosburg, who helped Missouri’s frontline finish the game 15 of 16 from the field with 15 rebounds. “I was right behind him, so I kind of wanted it too, but he finished it off. That was probably my favorite (of our dunks).”
Clarkson, who delivered one of his game-best seven assists on that Jones jam, capped the run with a three-pointer that had the Tigers in front 68-41.
Clarkson finished with 14 points and added five rebounds.
After shooting a dismal 32 percent in Tuesday’s loss at Georgia, Missouri made more field goals in the first half against Mississippi State’s Bulldogs (18) than it did overall against Georgia’s Bulldogs (17).
The Tigers, who shot 62 percent on Saturday, initially took control with an 18-6 first-half run that turned a one-point lead into a 39-26 advantage.
The highlight was Clarkson’s thunderous transition dunk after stepping into a passing lane at midcourt delivered Missouri its first double-digit lead.
Initially, Missouri went into the locker room up 43-32, but officials reviewed a replay of Post’s tip-in of a missed three by Ross at the buzzer and decided it counted.
When the Tigers emerged from halftime, it was 45-32 instead.