Missouri senior Earnest Ross had a terrible game for most of the opening 39 minutes Wednesday against Texas A&M in his final home game at Mizzou Arena.
Ross, a transfer from Auburn who spent two seasons with the Tigers, missed his first six shots from the field, including all four three-point tries, and even bricked his first three free throws.
It wasn’t the kind of senior night Ross envisioned — at least until the final 1:06 when he rallied Missouri to a 57-56 win.
“He’s a competitor, and he makes things happen,” said junior Jabari Brown, who finished with a game-high 20 points. “ I knew he was going to stick with it. That’s one thing we always talk about — going through the hard times, you’ve got to keep playing and eventually good things will happen.”
Ross, who entered the game averaging 14.2 points, had been scoreless until hitting a free throw with barely a minute remaining.
He went on to score Missouri’s final seven points, including two free throws with 7.3 seconds remaining that provided the Tigers’ first and only lead of the game.
Ross also tipped away Texas A&M’s final inbounds pass with 2.2 seconds remaining, icing the victory and sending the crowd of 10,655 into a frenzy.
It wasn’t the kind of win that’s likely to impress the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, but Missouri, 21-9 and 9-8 in the SEC, managed to avoid complete disaster by rallying from an 11-point second-half hole despite 17 turnovers and a frigid shooting display.
“I’m proud of our guys for staying with it,” Tigers coach Frank Haith said. “It wasn’t the prettiest of games. I told you it had a chance to be like going to the dentist, and it surely was that.”
A loss against the Aggies, 17-13 and 8-9 in the SEC, likely would have been the final nail in Missouri’s coffin — barring an SEC tournament championship, of course — in the chase for a program-record sixth straight NCAA tourney appearance.
Instead, the Tigers, who owned a 39-24 rebounding advantage, kept fading postseason hopes alive with a gutsy comeback.
Missouri put itself in the hole with some sloppy play that occasionally lapsed into absentmindedness — for example, the four inbounds passes directly to Texas A&M players.
Compounding those turnover issues, Missouri shot 34 percent from the field, its worst field-goal percentage at home this season.
Brown and junior Jordan Clarkson added 14 points, but the duo — who also might have been playing at Mizzou Arena for the final time — only combined to shoot 10 of 25 from the field.
Still, buoyed by Ross’ late-game heroics and a solid performance by freshman Johnathan Williams III, who scored seven with a team-best eight rebounds and career-high five blocks, it was enough.
“I just wanted to win the game,” Ross said.
Ross hit two free throws with 52 seconds left after a steal at halfcourt. He was fouled to stop a certain transition dunk.
He then answered junior Jamal Jones’ jumper with a spinning layup for his only basket of the game with 17.4 seconds left.
“I was just trying to attack to the rim and get to the rim,” Ross said. “That was pretty much it. I didn’t really want to settle for too many jumpers anymore. It wasn’t falling, so why keep shooting? Luckily, the ball went in, so I was happy.”
Texas A&M and Missouri then traded turnovers before Jones bricked the front end of a one-and-one.
Ross grabbed the rebound and was promptly fouled by junior Jordan Green, setting up the game-winning free throws with 7.3 seconds left.
Missouri still had to survive two Texas A&M inbounds attempts and a couple of video reviews by officials, but Haith’s squad managed to hang on and has a chance — if Arkansas loses at Alabama — to snag the fourth seed in the SEC tournament with a win Saturday at Tennessee.
The first half of was mostly an eyesore for Missouri.
The Tigers, who started the game one of nine from the field and had 10 points in the opening 13-plus minutes, trailed the Aggies 30-20 at the break — matching the season-low for points in the opening half.