Missouri kept its flickering NCAA Tournament hopes alive Thursday.
But indicative of the Tigers’ season to this point, of course their 91-83 double-overtime win against Texas A&M was more difficult than it needed to be.
“One of the consistent things this season is that wins are going to be tough for us,” said junior Jabari Brown, who led the Tigers with 26 points. “But this team has a lot of toughness and we don’t get down even when we’re losing.”
A&M, 17-15, erased a nine-point second-half deficit and pulled in front entering the final minute, but Missouri eventually parlayed a hefty edge at the free-throw line and on the glass to advance in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The Tigers, 22-10, enjoyed a 48-28 rebounding advantage and outscored the Aggies 30-10 in second-chance points.
Freshman Johnathan Williams III, who finished with 11 points and 15 rebounds for his third career double-double, grabbed eight of Missouri’s 19 offensive rebounds.
“I just came out with the mind-set that I wanted to make the (NCAA) Tournament as a freshman, and so I just wanted to play really hard for my teammates,” said Williams, who also dished a career-high four assists and blocked two shots.
Meanwhile, Missouri went 40 of 53 at the free-throw line, two shy of the program record for made free throws and three shy of the record for attempts in a game.
“We noticed some things on film from last game that we didn’t do,” Brown said. “… They were playing me for the jump shot, which a lot of teams do, so I knew I had to get to the basket.”
Along with the rest of the Tigers, Brown was aggressive going to the rim and the result was a massive edge at the line, where A&M — the worst free-throw shooting team in the SEC — went 20 of 28.
The Tigers’ reward is a quarterfinal showdown with No. 1 Florida, which is the conference’s top seed after rolling through SEC play 18-0, at noon Friday at the Georgia Dome.
“We’ve got a great opportunity (Friday) to play the No. 1 team in the country, and we’re excited about it,” Tigers coach Frank Haith said.
Haith was less excited watching the Aggies come back against his eighth-seeded Tigers, who seemed to be in command for about 35 minutes.
Missouri, which had shot below 33 percent in two of its last three games had played well, getting on track offensively behind senior Earnest Ross, who finished with 24 points, including a team season-best 17 in the first half.
Ross, who scored the final seven points in last week’s 57-56 win against A&M, added the first seven points in the rematch and later added eight more points during a 15-6 run that helped the Tigers take control 34-26 at halftime.
Still, as the final minutes approached, A&M scratched back within 62-59 before a series of turnovers by Missouri junior Jordan Clarkson allowed the Aggies to move in front.
Clarkson’s bad pass to Brown on the right wing led to two free throws by A&M sophomore Alex Caruso, who led all scorers with 28 and added eight rebounds and seven assists.
Another turnover by Clarkson on the next possession led to go-ahead free throws by senior Fabyon Harris.
Missouri briefly retook the lead on a follow jam by Williams, but a bucket by sophomore Antwan Space and a three-point by Caruso sandwiched around another Clarkson turnover had the Aggies in front 68-64.
“Everybody’s fighting for their lives, so we didn’t think they were going to roll over or anything like that,” Brown said.
The Tigers erased that lead with free throws by Ross and Brown, forcing overtime.
Clarkson, who finished with a season-worst six turnovers, scored five during the first OT for Missouri.
But another one of his turnovers directly led to the game-tying layup with 8.0 seconds left to force double-overtime — for the first time at the SEC tourney since 1987.
Brown fouled out late in the first overtime and Clarkson joined him on the bench at the 4:02 mark in the second overtime, but a gassed A&M squad went three of 14 from the field after regulation.
Meanwhile, freshmen Wes Clark and Shane Rector — the replacements for Brown and Clarkson — combined to go seven of 10 in the final 1:18 to ice the win.