Missouri blew a golden opportunity Saturday to claim sole possession of fourth place in the Southeastern Conference at Alabama.
Instead, the Tigers stubbed their toe against a Crimson Tide team in the midst of its worst season since 1970-71, a season so bad there is speculation it could cost coach Anthony Grant his job when it’s finished.
If so, Alabama’s 80-73 upset in front of an announced crowd of 10,907 at Coleman Coliseum will go down as one of Grant’s highlights.
Conversely, it’s another low point in Missouri’s rollercoaster season.
“Alabama played with a lot more passion and a lot more toughness than we did,” Tigers coach Frank Haith said. “We didn’t defend at all. The leaders of our team — Jabari (Brown) and Jordan (Clarkson), those guys have got to defend.”
It started out bad with Missouri coughing up more than 40 points in the first half for the sixth time this season and trailing 42-35 at halftime.
Junior guard Levi Randolph led Alabama, which had averaged fewer than 68 points per game this season, with 19 points in the first half — one shy of his career-high set earlier this season against North Florida.
It didn’t get any better after the break when Randolph swished a three-pointer 7 seconds into the second half, prompting a quick timeout and scolding from Haith.
“We just weren’t locked in defensively,” said junior Jabari Brown, who finished with 23 points and five assists. “I feel I didn’t do a very good job defensively in the first half, so I take some of that blame. It just hurt us. Once he got going, he started knocking down threes left and right.”
Randolph finished with a career-high 33 points on 11 of 15 shooting. He entered play shooting 31 percent from three-point range, but he hit five of seven three-pointers.
“He had a career game, but he had a lot of open looks, too,” Haith said. “He’s more of a driver, but when a guy gets comfortable. And he was very comfortable. We didn’t do anything to get him out of his comfort zone.”
The Tigers, who committed six of their 16 turnovers in the final 6:11 to blunt a comeback bid, led 13-10 roughly seven minutes into the game after a three-pointer by Earnest Ross, who led the Tigers with 25 points and eight rebounds. But the Tide scored 20 of the next 30 points to take control.
Randolph scored on a three-point play and added two monster jams, one as he knifed through the Missouri defense in transition and another off a no-look feed from Trevor Releford, who briefly left the game in the first half with a bruised thigh.
Randolph capped off Alabama’s run with back-to-back threes, which pushed the lead to 33-23.
Fittingly, Randolph finished the half with another dunk sending the Tigers into the break searching for answers. His dunk with 35 seconds left also served as an exclamation point on the Tide’s victory.
Of course, Randolph wasn’t alone.
Releford went seven for 12 and finished with 18 points and, as a team, Alabama’s 57.4-percent shooting clip was the highest any team has shot against Missouri this season, eclipsing the 53.6 percent Kentucky shot in a Feb. 1 win.
The Tide had been shooting 44 percent on the season and below 42 percent in SEC play.
Entering Saturday, Missouri, 19-8 and 7-7 in the SEC, sat in a four-way tie for fourth place with Tennessee, Mississippi and LSU — who all lost, opening the door for the Tigers to take control in the race for the last double bye in next month’s SEC Tournament.
Now, the Tigers, whose NCAA Tournament hopes also were dealt a blow with the loss against a Tide team with an RPI of 127, find themselves in gridlock with seven teams tied for fourth place at 7-7.
“We can’t feel sorry for ourselves,” Haith said. “Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us, so we sure as heck can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got to keep working and get prepared to play a very good Georgia team on Tuesday.”