Special seasons are difficult to come by when you lose your conference opener to a team ranked 251st in the RPI ratings. Especially when you’re playing at home, where you had won 26 straight. And after you’ve just climbed to No. 21 in the rankings after an impressive 12-1 showing in non-conference play.
Actually, moving up to a season-high spot in the polls proved to be the biggest obstacle the Tigers faced in their 70-64 overtime loss to Georgia on Wednesday night at Mizzou Arena.
It was almost like the Tigers believed all they needed to do was show up and the W would be there by the end of the night. Who needs urgency when you’re in the Top 25, right?
"The guys will tell you, I hate the word ‘cool,’" Missouri coach Frank Haith said. "We were really too cool. Cool will get you beat. Cool got us beat tonight."
Georgia was not cool. Georgia was inspired. Georgia was playing for a coach, Mark Fox, who had been away from his team to attend the funeral of his father, Raymond Fox, who died last Saturday.
The Bulldogs came out fighting, grabbed an 8-0 lead, and didn’t stop. Even when the Tigers showed signs of playing up to their ranking, the Bulldogs bounced back. They fell behind by 5 with 2:51 left in overtime, then outscored the Tigers 12-1 the rest of the way. Twice, the Bulldogs’ Nemanja Djurisic found himself open right under the basket for easy layups. On another possession, he was left open for a deep 3-pointer that he nailed.
Georgia dominated where effort matters most, grabbing 15 offensive rebounds and scoring 40 points in the paint. They out-boarded the Tigers, 43-34, an impressive showing for a team that has had its troubles in said category.
"Rebounding is effort," Haith said. "They went with way more tenacity than we did. They’re long, they’re athletic, and you have to check those guys off the glass. We did not.
They played inspired, came in and whipped our tails."
Still, the Bulldogs had plenty of moments when they played down to their standing as the SEC’s lowest-ranked team. They missed eight of their first 10 free throws. They threw at least two out-of-bounds passes to no one. They blew a 30-25 halftime lead by missing nine of their first 12 shots after the intermission. They had a chance to go up by five points with 1:07 left but missed two free throws.
But the Tigers did not take advantage. Give Georgia some credit for excelling in another area that had given it problems during its 6-6 non-conference schedule. That would be defense. Fox said the last time he talked to his father was on Christmas Day and his dad, a former high school coach, offered some blunt advice.
"You need to play some damn defense," Fox said his dad told him. "He was right."
Georgia turned up the defense on Tigers’ leading scorer Jordan Clarkson, who missed 10 of 14 shots and finished with 12 points, one game after scoring only 11 against Long Beach State. Clarkson hit a deep 3 late in regulation to tie the game, but could not get off a clean shot at the buzzer that could have allowed Missouri to escape with a victory.
While Georgia had guards that matched up nicely against the 6-5 Clarkson, Haith thought his point guard’s biggest problem was self-induced.
"Jordan has to pass the ball," Haith said. "He’s got to get that ball in and out of his hands. The ball stuck way too much tonight."
Don’t pin too much responsibility for this one on Clarkson, though. This was a team-wide effort, or lack thereof.
"I really sensed it during the week, preparing," Haith said. "We didn’t have the right look about us. The (lack of) toughness thing is something that’s hard for a coach to accept. You gotta compete. We didn’t compete."
Said Jabari Brown, who scored a game-high 19: "We’re going to have to learn from it and remember this feeling so we don’t have it again."
The sting of defeat will linger at least until Saturday when the Tigers play at Auburn. It figures to take much longer to regain the feeling that this could be a special season.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.