With a little more than 7 minutes remaining, Central Missouri senior Daylen Robinson whipped a one-handed, no-look pass from the top of the key straight down the paint to junior forward Ryan Donald, whose two-handed jam gave the Mules a two-point lead Friday in exhibition action at Mizzou Arena.
Missouri wasn’t exactly on the ropes, but it took a stellar closing kick from the Tigers’ vaunted backcourt trio — senior Earnest Ross and juniors Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown — to close out a 92-79 victory.
“They played a lot of zone and we struggled against it,” Tigers coach Frank Haith said. “We finally had some breakthrough plays there in the second half just in terms of being able to find open areas against their zone and make some shots.”
Robinson’s assist, one of 14 for the Northeast High School graduate and 2010 DiRenna Award winner, had Mizzou Arena feeling momentarily uncomfortable before Brown banged home a three-pointer and touched off a 25-10 run to close the game.
“We tried to force them to take long outside shots, and they missed a few for a while,” said Central Missouri coach Kim Anderson, who played for Norm Stewart at Missouri from 1974-77. “… At least we gave them a little bit of a test.”
Freshman Jonathan Williams III followed with a layup before Central Missouri’s Jon Gilliam knotted the game at 72-72 with three-pointer from the right wing.
Missouri took the lead for good, and avoided its first exhibition game loss in 17 seasons, when Clarkson knifed to the basket, absorbed contact and sank a runner.
Clarkson added a free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play before Ross drilled back-to-back threes to give the Tigers some breathing room for the first time against the undersized, scrappy Mules.
Up 81-72, the Tigers, who open the regular season next Friday against Southeast Louisiana at home, closed out the win at the free-throw line.
“I don’t feel like we were worried,” said Brown, who finished with 19 points with five rebounds and four assists. “Not to take anything away from them. They’re a good team, but we’re confident.”
Brown combined with Ross, who scored a game-high 25 with nine rebounds, and Clarkson, who pumped in 24, to combine for 68 points, including 39 of Missouri’s 43 first-half points.
“Coach wants us to go out there, be aggressive and attack the basket,” said Clarkson, who added three assists with zero turnovers in 33 minutes. “We’re going to have other guys score. It’s not always just going to be us three.”
At least against Central Missouri, it was hard to tell where other points are going to come from.
Williams rebounded from a sluggish first half — zero points and four rebounds — to finish with eight points and a game-best 13 rebounds.
Senior Tony Criswell chipped in five points and seven boards, but he also fouled out in his 17 minutes on the floor.
Meanwhile, junior college transfer Keanau Post, a 6-foot-11 center who supposed to provide Missouri with scoring punch and a rebounding presence, only played eight mostly ineffective minutes.
Post, who didn’t have an rebounds and air-balled his only shot, was a spectator the entire second half.
“It’s a message,” said Haith, who went with Ross at power forward and Williams in the post down the stretch.
Asked about his comfort level moving forward with such a lineup, Haith said he’s fine with it: “We’re going to do what we’ve got to do to win the game. Some guys have got to get better. We’ve got to have some improvement in a lot of areas.”
That much was clear, at least until the final 7 minutes.