Up 19 points at halftime, it appeared something was finally going to come easy for the Missouri basketball team.
Former Tigers coach Frank Haith’s alma mater, Elon, had a different idea in the second half on Thursday at Mizzou Arena, rallying within one point in the closing minute.
But Missouri managed to avoid unmitigated disaster by steadying itself at the free-throw line in the last 46.2 seconds and hanging on for a 78-73 win.
“The bad news is we let them come back, and the good news is we did handle the pressure at the end,” first-year Tigers coach Kim Anderson said. “I am pleased that, once we messed it up, we fixed it at the end. We made some free throws. I thought we handled their pressure pretty well. … This is a team that needed something good to happen, and winning a game is good. I think we can build on the first half.”
Missouri had its largest lead of the season, 46-27, at halftime and seemed to be on cruise control.
Freshman guard Namon Wright, who made his third consecutive start, opened the game with back-to-back three-pointers, and MU’s lead never dipped below three points the rest of the first half.
“That was probably the best first half that we played all year,” Anderson said.
The second half was a complete reversal as Elon shrugged off an eight-of-33 first-half performance from the field and outscored Missouri 46-32 in the second half.
“I’m really happy with the way our team responded at halftime,” Elon coach Matt Matheny said. “It wasn’t like we were gangbusters, but we played on our toes in the second half.”
Missouri’s lead remained in double figures at 70-58 after sophomore Wes Clark’s jumper with 4:27 remaining, but sophomore Luke Eddy’s led the Elon Phoenix back.
The collar-tightening comeback started with a three-pointer by Tanner Samson.
Eddy then scored eight straight points, including back-to-back threes. The second three made it 70-69 with 55.9 seconds remaining.
The Tigers held on though through their work at the free-throw line.
Sophomore Johnathan Williams III drained both ends of a one-and-one with 46.2 seconds left.
The Phoenix had a chance to tie the game on the next possession when senior Kevin Blake scored inside as Clark fouled out.
Blake missed the ensuing free throw, but Williams lost his balance after grabbing the rebound and gave the ball back to Elon with a chance to take the lead.
Instead, Eddy, who finished with a game-high 27 points, missed an 18-footer and Elon’s Tony Sabato went over Keith Shamburger’s back on the rebound.
Shamburger, the Tigers’ best free-throw shooter, calmly hit a pair with 26.6 seconds left, extending the lead to three points.
Samson couldn’t get a clean look on Elon’s next possession and air-balled a potential game-tying three.
“In watching them play, I knew they would make a run in the second half, and certainly they made a big run,” Anderson said.
The win was complete after a steal and two more free throws by Shamburger, who, along with Williams, scored a team-high 16 points..
Williams also had a team-high eight rebounds, while Montaque Gill-Caesar finished with 10 points and freshman D’Angelo Allen finished with 12 points and seven rebounds.