Despite a season-low 20 first-half points, Missouri scrapped its way into a four-way tie for fourth place in the Southeastern Conference with a 67-64 win Wednesday against Vanderbilt at Mizzou Arena.
Of course, until a late 13-2 run fueled by junior Jordan Clarkson and senior Earnest Ross, the Tigers seemed just as likely to slip back below .500 in conference.
Missouri, 19-7 and 7-6 in the SEC, was forced to sweat out the final minute because of uncharacteristically poor free-throw shooting down the stretch, but managed to extend its win streak to three in a row by avenging a Jan. 16 loss at Vanderbilt.
“It wasn’t the prettiest of games,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “I thought we lost some focus there. We had some plays out there we haven’t had in a while in terms of offensive execution and focus in terms of missing free throws.”
Credit the Commodores, 14-11 and 6-7 in the SEC, for some of those offensive struggles.
Vanderbilt imposed its will, especially during a low-scoring first half, with a deliberate pace by consistently running the shot clock into the waning seconds and controlling the boards.
Unable to get out in transition, the Tigers, who were outrebounded 35-29, got bogged down on offense and misfired on 14 of their first 19 shots.
“We missed some shots, but I do think also we weren’t ourselves in terms of taking good shot/great shot,” Haith said. “We had some aggressive plays where we were not sharing as well as we have been.”
The saving grace was that the Commodores weren’t exactly setting the nets on fire either. Both teams shot 33 percent from the field in the opening half.
“Our game is more of a fast-paced, open-court type of play, so we try to get in transition as much as possible,” said freshman Wes Clark, who finished with nine points. “Vanderbilt played great defense at times and we weren’t getting stops like we needed to.”
That changed in the second half as Missouri pumped in 47 points.
“Once we made some adjustments in our zone offense, I thought we spaced them (out) a little bit and had some really good looks,” Haith said. “That helped open the game up a little bit for us to be able to run.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Tigers were able to cruise to victory.
The lead seesawed a few times in the second half, but Vanderbilt led 51-48 with less than six minutes remaining before Clarkson and Ross took over.
Clarkson, who finished with a game-high 21 points, knotted the game with a three-point play and Ross, who finished with 16 points, canned a three-pointer that moved Missouri into the lead to stay.
A turnover along the sideline by Commodores senior Kyle Fuller triggered a fastbreak, which ended with junior Jabari Brown dropping a dime for Clarkson.
After a basket by freshman Damian Jones, who led Vanderbilt with 19 points, Clarkson, who also added five rebounds and five assists, answered with a nifty Euro step around a defender at the rim.
Ross then connected on another three-pointer, which extended the Tigers’ lead to 61-53 and prompted Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings to call a timeout before the game got out of hand.
Missouri’s lead remained 62-57 entering the final minute, but the Tigers only went five for 10 at the line in the closing minute to let the Commodores hang around.
Vanderbilt drew as close as two points on junior Shelby Moats’ three-pointer with 19 seconds left, but a couple free throws by Clarkson, who went 11 for 11 at the line, eventually sealed the win.
The Tigers managed to hold in check Fuller and senior Rod Odom, who popped off for a combined 46 points and 10 three-pointers in the earlier meeting. The duo combined to shoot four for 25, including two of 12 from three-point range on Wednesday.