It was a familiar scene, in a way. Missouri was playing on the road on Wednesday, and one team was struggling to find its rhythm while the other jumped out to a monster first-half lead.
But for once, the team struggling early was not Missouri. Instead it was the home team, Mississippi State, which committed the same kind of the basketball sins that have haunted the Tigers on the road as Missouri pounced in a convincing 78-36 victory at Humphrey Coliseum.
Ugly as the defeat was for Mississippi State – which shot a miserable 16 percent from the field in the first half and trailed 34-10 at halftime – it was quite sweet for the Tigers, who improved to 18-6 overall and 7-4 in the SEC while earning their first road victory in six tries this season.
“I think this kind of boosted our confidence, (but) not too much that we feel like we’ve done a ton,” said senior forward Laurence Bowers. “Now we know we can win the road.”
Tigers coach Frank Haith, whose team allowed the fewest points in a league game by any Missouri team since it allowed 35 against Kansas in 1982, said the performance was a continuation of the improvement they showed in recent road losses to Louisiana State and Texas A&M.
“I think we could have easily won our last two road games,” Haith said. “It came down to possessions.”
Wednesday’s game would not, though to be fair, much of that had to do with Mississippi State’s ineptitude. The Bulldogs, who are down to six scholarship players due to injuries and suspensions, are now losers of nine straight, with Wednesday’s loss marking the largest in Humphrey Coliseum history.
“This is an embarrassing loss,” said Mississippi State coach Rick Ray, whose team was outrebounded 47-30 and only logged three assists compared to Missouri’s 20.
But give Missouri credit; the Tigers came out with a vengeance, jumping out to a 14-0 lead keyed largely by its suffocating defense. When Mississippi State wasn’t turning the ball over, it was missing jump shots, as the Bulldogs didn’t get on the scoreboard until the ten minute, 38-second mark, thanks to a wide-open three that made the score 14-3.
But things didn’t get any easier for Mississippi State from there, as Missouri – which protected the rim, and cut off dribble penetration with vigor – held the Bulldogs to 4-for-25 shooting before halftime. Guard Trivante Bloodman scored a team-high 13 points for Mississippi State, which drops to 7-16, 2-9 in the SEC.
“Missouri is not a very good defensive team if you look at the stats,” said Ray, whose team only shot 23.9 percent from the field for the game. “They are near or at the bottom of all the defensive categories, so it wasn’t like we were coming in facing a defensive juggernaut. We just didn’t do a good job of executing offensivelyI thought we held the ball too long and just let it stick.”
Meanwhile, the Tigers patiently ran their offense and created tons of open looks at the rim and from the perimeter. Missouri senior guard Keion Bell was the catalyst early on, pouring in a team-high 16 points on an array of driving layups and jumpers.
Bell finished the game with 24 points, tying a career-high, while sophomore guard Jabari Brown (20 points) also did his part, scoring nine consecutive points at one point early in the second half to help the Tigers maintain control.
Senior forward Laurence Bowers (11 points), senior forward Alex Oriakhi (10 rebounds) and junior guard Phil Pressey (eight assists) also chipped in with solid efforts for Missouri, which shot 31-for-58 (53.4 percent) from the field, overall, led by as many as 44 points and never let the Bulldogs get closer than 19 after halftime.
“They run motion, and we had to be sound defensively (watching) cuts and back screens,” Haith said. “I thought our guys did a great job playing defense.”
The Tigers will try to take the same effort on the road again on Saturday, when they travel to Arkansas to face former coach Mike Anderson at 3 p.m. at Bud Walton Arena.
But first, they will enjoy Wednesday’s win, one that had been months in the making, one in which they were finally able to exhale at the end, in an environment not named Mizzou Arena.
“That was a good feeling,” Pressey said.