COLUMBIA, Mo. — That might have sounded like a loud cheer when the clock hit zero Thursday night at Mizzou Arena. But it was more like a loud whew. Or WHEW!
The 86-85 victory Missouri pulled out over Arkansas won’t put the Tigers in the NCAA tournament, but it will allow their hopes to stop fading. At least temporarily. The Tigers had lost three in a row and fallen into ninth place in the SEC, and coach Frank Haith admitted his team’s confidence had been "rattled."
But as Jabari Brown, the man who made the winning basket, said with a bit of a whew himself. "It keeps us going in the right direction. Seven more games and we’re trying to get all seven of them. But we’re going to take them one at a time."
In many ways, this was like most of Missouri’s games this season. The three guards — Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross — provided most of the scoring, the frontcourt made a limited contribution, the Tigers had their troubles on defense and, of course, it was tight.
But one difference was huge. This time, the Tigers managed to win a close game. As Haith likes to point out, and accurately so, six of the Tigers’ seven losses have come down to the final one or two possessions. The only exception was a 10-point loss at Florida that was close until the final few minutes.
The Tigers appeared to be on the verge of another wrenching loss after Arkansas went on a 12-2 run to turn Missouri’s 81-73 lead into an 85-83 deficit with 1:17 left. With the score 83-83, Clarkson missed a fairly uncontested drive to his right and Arkansas took advantage when Mardracus Wade scored to put the Razorbacks up. Clarkson’s frustration was obvious when the Tigers went into a timeout.
As it turned out, Clarkson’s miss merely set up Brown’s winning play. The Tigers, down 85-84, had the ball with 23 seconds left when Clarkson, who led all scorers with 27 points, essentially took himself out of the play. When a Razorbacks defender harassed him in the backcourt, Clarkson seemed to be content to stay behind and didn’t even cross the half-court line.
"I made a decision to stay back because then there would be nobody to help on Jabari’s drive or whatever he was going to do," Clarkson said.
Haith didn’t quite buy that explanation but when he said Clarkson "bailed out" on the play, the coach told Brown, "Go, go."
Brown did just that, working his way into the lane and muscling in a right-handed half hook. "I didn’t want to settle for a jumper," said Brown, who had a rare off night shooting (1-of-6 3-pointers). "I wanted to try to get a shot going towards the basket, I was able to get a pretty good shot."
"He made a play. That’s what good players do," said Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, who fell for the third straight time to the school where he used to coach.
The play was one that Brown probably wouldn’t even have attempted last season.
"He could not have made that play last year," Haith said. "He’s gotten so much better going off the bounce. He was a catch-and-shoot guy. He’s worked hard at that. That’s good to see when you’ve got more than one guy who can go get a shot."
Even without his jumper falling, Brown still finished with 25 points because of his aggressiveness with the ball. Time after time, he drove to the basket and time after time, he was fouled. He made 14 of 15 free throws, to go with 11 of 13 by Clarkson. The Tigers, in fact, made their first 23 free throws to tie a team record and also set a team record by hitting 27 straight going back to their end of their previous game.
Still, Arkansas had 10.2 seconds to go for the winner, but Missouri teamed up to make a game-deciding stop. Razorbacks guard Rashad Madden came out of a timeout with instructions to drive to the basket or dish to one of the corners. He immediately was forced by Johnathan Williams III to go right, where he found Clarkson waiting for him. Madden managed to get a little space, only to find 6-10 Ryan Rosburg standing between him and the basket. Arms straight up, Rosburg held his ground, Madden’s shot went off the rim and the Tigers ended up with the ball in a scramble that saw just about every player in the game end up on the floor.
"We came up with it," Clarkson said.
And as they did, the largest home crowd of the season (12,343) erupted with a thunderous cheer. Or was that a whew?
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.