Montaque Gill-Caesar was asked a question about teammate Wes Clark missing two free throws with 3.3 seconds left that enabled Arkansas to beat Missouri 61-60, but Tigers coach Kim Anderson made the interception.
“The first thing to remember is Wes Clark did not lose the game, OK?” Anderson said, with emphasis.
“All of you can write that down. Wes Clark didn’t lose the game. Thank you.”
Anderson said his message in the media room was the same in the locker room in the aftermath of perhaps the Tigers’ most disappointing loss.
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Mizzou had its most encouraging performance since opening Southeastern Conference play with a victory over LSU. Saturday’s outcome marked the fifth straight defeat since then, but the Tigers put themselves in a position to win.
They played superb defense, outrebounded the bigger Razorbacks most of the game and got terrific performances from Johnathan Williams III and Gill-Caesar, among others.
But Missouri didn’t finish.
The Tigers got their final opportunity after Arkansas’ Michael Qualls missed a jumper with 26 seconds remaining.
Missouri, down by one, took the ball out of bounds in front of its bench with 5.3 ticks of the clock to go.
Clark made a good move to collect the inbounds pass and had a path to the hoop. He went up and was fouled by the Razorbacks’ Rashad Madden.
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, the former Tigers’ leader who had lost in his previous two trips to Mizzou Arena, called a timeout for two purposes. One, to set up plays based on the result, and the other …
“To ice him a little bit,” Anderson said of Clark.
Clark, a 74-percent free-throw shooter this season, stepped to the line. The first attempt bounced around the rim and fell off. Clark short-armed the second one, and the Razorbacks controlled the rebound and sealed the outcome.
The repair work on Clark’s psyche started immediately. He wasn’t available for interviews after the game.
“Without him that situation wouldn’t have occurred,” Kim Anderson said. “No one feels worse than Wes Clark about missing two free throws.
“But you know what was good about this? I saw this team rally and I saw this team fight for each other. There’s some real disappointment in the locker room, but we fought this for 40 minutes.”
Clark was instrumental in giving the Tigers their last chance. Mizzou trailed 53-47 with 6 minutes remaining, and Clark scored Mizzou’s next six points, a stretch that started with two free throws.
The Tigers trailed 58-55 when Gill-Caesar buried a three with 2:40 remaining, and Gill-Caesar’s jumper gave Mizzou a 60-59 edge with 1:53 to play.
Madden hit a jumper at the 1:24 mark, and that turned out to be the game’s final points. But plenty of action remained.
Gill-Caesar, who missed three games earlier while recovering from a back injury, played through a sore ankle Saturday and finished with 16 points.
Williams, the team’s top scorer, had been in an offensive slump with single-digit outputs in his previous four games. But he started on fire, scoring Missouri’s first seven points and 11 of the team’s first 21. He finished with 15 points.
“I’ve been working hard, on my own, to get better,” Williams said. “It was good to see shots fall.”
Clark’s defense on Qualls, who entered the game averaging 16.9 points, helped keep things close. Qualls had eight points on three-of-15 shooting.
Maybe most encouraging for Mizzou was it didn’t collapse after a competitive start. Including Arkansas, the Tigers have led or trailed by no more than a basket in four SEC games. But at some point in the second half of losses to Auburn, Tennessee and Texas A&M, Missouri hit a dead spot.
That happened again Saturday. The Tigers went cold, and Arkansas nearly pulled away. But that’s when Clark started his flurry and Missouri reeled the Razorbacks back in.
But the Tigers didn’t finish the job.
“It’s frustrating, but you just have to keep pushing, keep moving forward,” Williams said. “It’s going to come around sooner or later.”
To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BlairKerkhoff.