Missouri senior Earnest Ross calmly swished two free throws with 29.9 seconds remaining Saturday at Auburn.
It was a great moment for Ross, who played at Auburn from 2009-11 and boosted Missouri’s lead to 70-67, but it set up a traditional basketball dilemma for coach Frank Haith.
To foul or not to foul? That was the question.
Obviously, Auburn could have tied the game with a three-pointer, but Haith also could have ordered Missouri to give a foul and send Auburn to the line for two free throws that couldn’t tie the score.
“It depends on how much time’s on the clock,” Haith said when asked about his late-game philosophy with a three-point lead.
If there’s more than 6 seconds remaining, Haith prefers to put the game in the hands of his defense and let it play out.
Against Auburn, Missouri locked down the perimeter and refused to allow a good look with excellent ball pressure and quick, decisive switches on screens.
That eventually led senior Chris Denson to drive to the basket and draw a foul with 5 seconds left. He made the first free throw but missed the second.
Missouri freshman Torren Jones stepped on the baseline after grabbing the defensive rebound, which gave Auburn another possession down 70-68, but freshman Wes Clark tipped away the inbound pass and preserved the victory.
Had Missouri still led by three points at that moment, Haith might have ordered his squad to foul on the inbound catch.
“If it’s 6 (seconds) or less, I’ll do the foul game before a shot and play the foul game out,” Haith said. “… I know a lot of coaches that don’t do that. They play it out, but that’s something that I’ve always done.”
Speaking of studly defense, Denson finished with 11 points, nearly nine points below his season average.
“He’s good, but Jabari did a great job on him,” Haith said. “… It was team defense, but Jabari — particularly in the second half there — did a great job on him.”