Missouri junior point guard Jordan Clarkson carved up Southern Illinois to the tune of a career-high 31 points in a virtuoso performance that paced a 72-59 victory Tuesday at Mizzou Arena.
Clarkson knifed into the lane at will, scoring 22 points in the paint and giving Salukis coach Barry Hinson, a former Missouri State head coach and Kansas assistant, a headache in the process.
“Thank God we had a scouting report that said, ‘Let him shoot the perimeter shot and don’t let him drive,’ ” Hinson joked. “Seriously, our focus tonight was that of a 4-year-old. He was a Ninja blender, he was in the lane so much tonight. He just kicked our (butt). Every time we came out on him, he just went around us.”
Missouri, which started its season 2-0 for the eighth consecutive season, struggled to solve Southern Illinois’ zone in the first half, shooting below 38 percent.
Led by Clarkson, who hit seven of 10 from the field in the second half, the Tigers’ second-half shooting percentage jumped to better than 54 percent as Missouri pulled away.
“First half, we shared the basketball and we moved the basketball, but I’m not going to ask players to do things they’re not comfortable doing,” said interim coach Tim Fuller, who is serving as the Tigers’ coach during Frank Haith’s five-game NCAA suspension. “In the second half, we just put the ball in the hands of our best players and let them make plays.”
Battling a Southern Illinois team picked to finish eighth in the 10-team Missouri Valley Conference, the Tigers led by only one point at halftime. They scored 13 of the first 19 points in the second half and opened up a 48-40 lead after back-to-back three-pointers by freshman Wes Clark and junior Jabari Brown.
Clarkson took control from there, scoring the Tigers’ next eight points and 11 of Missouri’s next 14 as the lead ballooned into double figures for the first time.
Clarkson, who scored 19 points in the second half, drilled a three-pointer with 7:15 remaining — his only bucket outside the paint — putting the Tigers in front 61-49. The lead never dipped below 12 the rest of the way.
“Coach (Tim) Fuller tells us to attack the paint, and I think we did a good job of that tonight,” said Clarkson, who added five assists and no turnovers in 40 minutes. “Having a deadly shooter coming off the drive, they’ve got to pick either one. It’s fire and ice, so it’s either you’re going to let us take the layup or Jabari’s going to knock down the three. I feel like we did a good job exploiting that.”
Missouri found itself in a dogfight at halftime, which arrived with the Tigers clinging to a 35-34 lead.
Trailing by one point in the final second before halftime, Clarkson knifed down the lane for a one-handed jam with 4 seconds left.
Brown finished with 17 points and senior Earnest Ross scored 11, all in the first half, giving the Tigers’ starting backcourt 59 points — nearly 82 percent of Missouri’s offensive production.
Fuller said that trend is likely to continue.
“Maybe when coach Haith gets back, he’ll have a different remedy than me, but I’m going to let these guys ride it out for these next three games left,” Fuller said. “They’re my go-to, because I trust them and I know they’re going to give me everything they have and they can score the basketball.”
Missouri has now won 20 straight home games and 75 consecutive home games against non-conference opponents, a streak that dates back to the 2005-06 season.