Toy Sue Miller Ross had never before seen an actual basketball game at Mizzou Arena, so the irony that her first one would come on Saturday, with Missouri set to face Auburn — her son’s old school — was not lost on her at all.
Still, she just hoped for a happy ending for her son Earnest, a 6-foot-5 junior guard who transferred to Missouri last season because he believed it gave him a better chance of playing in the NCAA Tournament one day.
“He was really looking forward to this game,” said Toy, who lives in North Carolina.
It didn’t take Mom long to see that her wish would come true for Earnest, who scored 23 points coming off the bench and teamed up with senior guard Keion Bell in helping Missouri overwhelm Auburn 91-77 in front of an announced crowd of 12,313.
“It was kind of a personal thing when I stepped on the court,” Earnest said afterward. “I know most of those guys … more of like a friendly rival, I would say.”
Friendly or not, Earnest’s determination showed in the first half, when he scored 13 points on five-of-seven shooting, including three for three from three-point range on his old team, which trailed Missouri 45-35 at the break.
“I knew then,” Toy said with a grin.
Of course, some might say they knew Missouri had it in the bag a little after the break, when a 16-4 run pushed the Tigers’ lead to 67-46 with 12 minutes, 38 seconds left.
But no matter. The win was an incredibly satisfying one, and not just for Ross and his family, but for his teammates and coaches as well. Missouri improved to 16-5 overall and 5-3 in the SEC. But most important, it somewhat erased the bitter taste of a brutal 73-70 road loss to Louisiana State on Wednesday, after which Missouri coach Frank Haith lamented his team’s occasional inability to follow instructions and criticized the team for taking quick shots.
At the center of his criticism, it seems, was junior point guard Phil Pressey, who scored 25 points against LSU but also missed several hurried shots down the stretch. But on Saturday, Haith praised the controlled play of Pressey, who finished with four points and three turnovers but also racked up 10 assists and helped the Tigers get the kind of looks Haith wants.
“We actually passed up some shots for a better shot, and it all starts from Phil,” said Haith, whose team hit 54.5 percent from the floor. “And when we have that kind of play out of him, it filters its way throughout the whole team.”
The same can be said, apparently, about the play of Bell, who missed the LSU game because of a shoulder injury but bounced back on Saturday to score a team-high 24 points on nine-of-13 shooting.
Bell, who also had five rebounds and three steals, pleased Haith with his on-ball defense and ability to finish at the rim against Auburn. Bell was a major reason the Tigers took a 10-point lead into the break with a 15-point spurt before halftime.
“I was really just trying to use as much energy and emotion today as I could to provide some type of spark,” Bell said. “Taking some time off, you can be a little rusty, so the areas you make up for that are energy and emotion.”
His teammates fed off that emotion. Missouri, which also got double-digit scoring outings from senior forward Laurence Bowers (12 points), senior forward Alex Oriakhi (11) and sophomore guard Jabari Brown (11), found a way to execute offensively despite the up-and-down pace of a game that included 49 total fouls and 69 free throws.
Meanwhile, Auburn managed to hold its own on the boards — MU won that battle only 33-31 — but only shot 35.8 percent from the field. Guard Frankie Sullivan led Auburn with 12 points.
“I thought we handled the game as good as we could,” Haith said. “It was a tough game from a flow standpoint because of the fouls on both ends — they shoot 36 free throws, we shoot 33 free throws. But usually when you see games like that with rugged play it’s low-scoring, so I thought our guys executed very well and kept their composure throughout the whole ballgame.”
Some players, however, were clearly more amped than others. Ross and Auburn guard Shaquille Johnson were assessed technical fouls for a verbal altercation in the second half that Ross later downplayed.
“(It was) just friendly chatter, and the refs thought it was more than what it was,” Ross said. “They were just doing their job.”
But at the end of the game, it was clearly Ross who had the last laugh. As he strolled off the Mizzou Arena floor, he scanned the stands and searched for one person, in particular.
“She doesn’t get to come to many home games, just because she lives so far from here, but my mother was definitely the person I was looking at,” Ross said. “For her to come out and support me as far as she lives, I’m grateful to have her and really appreciate it.”
Those feelings were clearly reciprocated by Toy, who welled with pride watching her son leave the court, equal parts victorious and vindicated. Her wish for her son on this day had come true, and for a mother, well, that’s all she could ask for, right?
“It touched my heart,” Toy said.