COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Earlier in the season, Frank Haith acknowledged that Missouri’s offense ran through Laurence Bowers.
For the third consecutive game, Phil Pressey dictated the pace in the second half and put the 12th-ranked Tigers in position to win. Unlike its last game, a 3-point overtime loss at UCLA, Missouri scored down the stretch Saturday and managed to edge Bucknell 66-64.
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Pressey scored a career-high 26 points, mostly thanks to a career-best 10 made field goals. He singlehandedly kept the Tigers in the game during a 90-second stretch late in the second half by scoring seven consecutive points.
“He’s a terrific player,” Haith said. “Phil will tell you he’s all about just getting better and learning. You love a kid like that, he has that kind of attitude. I don’t think surprise is the word that I would use about Phil. Those special players, when you have one, he’s one of those guys that can do a lot of different things on the court to help you win basketball games other than score.”
But Pressey’s performance almost went for naught.
The 5-foot-11 point guard clanked the front-end of a 1-and-1 leading 64-63 with 10.3 seconds remaining. Bucknell’s Mike Muscala then bailed the Tigers out by stepping on the baseline with 4.1 left on the clock after catching a pass from Ryan Hill.
Earnest Ross made two free throws for the Tigers (11-2), but a foul by Jabari Brown put Muscala on the line for a final attempt to tie the game with 1.9 remaining. After making the first free throw, Missouri’s Stefan Jankovic grabbed the rebound on the second to end the game.
The game contrasted with Missouri’s performance at UCLA, when the Tigers shot 50 percent in the first half but only scored two points in the final five minutes of regulation. On Saturday, the team struggled to 34.4 percent shooting in the first half but made 51.6 percent from the floor after the break.
“I think that we’re a pretty good team, and pretty good teams learn from games like that, against UCLA,” Laurence Bowers said. “We didn’t execute down the stretch, and we wanted to make sure that we didn’t have any of those same type of plays this game.”
Muscala led the Bison (13-3) with 25 points and 14 rebounds for his 10th double-double of the season. Cameron Ayers added 13 points and Bryson Johnson scored 11.
Bison coach Dave Paulsen said the close finish was disappointing, even though it provided a lot of lessons as the team enters Patriot League play.
“I think if you come to Missouri and you hold them to 66 points, if you said that going into the game I would have signed up for that,” Paulsen said. “We just needed to be able to convert a few more plays.”
Bucknell, which entered the day among the nation’s leaders in wins, became the first team this season to outrebound the Tigers, who lead the country in rebounds per game (47.4).
Nevertheless, the Tigers managed to keep the halftime deficit to 28-24 thanks to a plus-6 rebounding margin. Haith admitted his team was impatient early on, evident by the Tigers’ guards combining for six turnovers and zero assists in the first half, one game removed from Pressey’s school-record 19 assists.
Needing a spark, Haith called on Jankovic to start the second half having only played two minutes thus far. The freshman delivered, scoring a 3-pointer and a dunk in the first minute to set the tone for the remainder of the game.
“Just felt like he could give us some offense,” Haith said. “And I liked the way he looked at the end of the half.”
Bowers scored 16 points and added eight rebounds, reaching double figures in points for eight consecutive games, a personal best, leaving Louisville as the only game this season in which he failed to do so. During this stretch, he has shot 57.1 percent from the field (64-of-112).
“Laurence is a guy I think we can do a lot with,” Haith said. “I still think he’s a valuable guy in terms of what we can do offensively in terms of what we can do through him.
The win capped the seventh season in a row for Missouri without a home loss to a nonconference opponent. The Tigers have won 73 consecutive such games.
Now entering Southeastern Conference play for the first time, Haith says he “loves” where his team is at.
“You see some young teams that I think that will start to play better once we get into league play,” Haith said. “And that’s my focus in telling our team, that we’ve got to be ready to play every time we lace them up.”