To improve its chances to reach the NCAA Tournament bracket, Missouri needed to create an Arkansas bracket.
That’s what happened Thursday with the Tigers’ 86-85 victory over the Razorbacks. The outcome ended a three-game losing streak, one that started after Missouri had defeated Arkansas two weeks ago.
Jabari Brown scored the game-winner, on a spin move and floater in the lane with 12.2 seconds remaining.
The odd thing was, Mizzou went four on four on that possession. Guard Jordan Clarkson never crossed midcourt. Arkansas’ Mardracus Wade stayed with Clarkson, creating the abbreviated matchup. The idea was prevent a double team on Brown.
“I just made a decision to stay because then there wouldn’t be anybody to help on Jabari,” Clarkson said. “It was kind of off instinct.”
That gave Missouri Coach Frank Haith an idea.
“So I should draw that up and put it in our playbook?” Haith said.
“I saw some more space,” Brown said. “I didn’t settle for a jumper. I wanted to get a shot going toward the basket, and I was able to get a pretty good shot.”
The Tigers had to withstand a final Razorbacks’ possession. Rashad Madden drove right and was a little strong on a contested layup. Missouri played superb defense, with good rotation to challenge the shooter.
“It was a good look,” said Arkansas forward Bobby Portis, who worked his way toward the basket for the possible stickback. “I was there for the tip-in, but I mistimed it.”
The ball was fumbled around and the buzzer sounded with players on the floor in a scramble.
Missouri, 17-7 overall and 5-6 in the Southeastern Conference, had to wonder how it came down to the final dramatics. The Tigers’ lead swelled to 83-75 on Clarkson’s free throw with 3:38 remaining. But the next 3 minutes were a disaster for the home team.
The Tigers missed their next five shots, including open-look three-pointers from Brown and Earnest Ross and a layup by Clarkson. The right people were shooting, but not making.
Arkansas chipped away, and when Wade scored inside with 1:14 to play, the Razorbacks had taken an 85-83 lead.
Clarkson stopped the Razorbacks’ run at 10 straight with a free throw, but he missed the second, and Missouri trailed by one.
But Arkansas’ Madden stepped out of bounds, returning possession to Missouri, and setting up the final dramatics.
Clarkson finished with 27 points, and Brown scored 25. The Tigers made a living at the free-throw line, making 34 of 38. Mizzou made its first 23 at the line. Throw in the final 17 in a row they made at Arkansas and that was 40 in a row against the same team.
Missouri needed every one of them Thursday after going four of 17 from the three-point line. Brown made 14 of 15 free throws, and Clarkson 11 of 13.
“We had to be aggressive and strong with the ball,” Brown said.
Missouri has plenty of work in front of it in its postseason quest, but getting this one was big — not only to stop the slide but to restore some confidence for a program riding its longest losing skid in Haith’s three seasons.
The Razorbacks were seeking revenge for a rare home loss. Mizzou had won at Bud Walton Arena for the first time in seven attempts, 75-71, on Jan. 28.
Since then, the Tigers had fallen at home to Kentucky, at Florida and at Mississippi.
Arkansas arrived on a two-game winning streak, including a victory at Vanderbilt. That marked coach Mike Anderson’s first road SEC victory over somebody other than Auburn.
Anderson’s second trip to Columbia, after spending five years on the Tigers’ bench, was much more competitive than his first. Last year, Missouri rolled to a 30-point victory over the Razorbacks.
This one came down to the final shot, and it fell the Tigers’ way.