COLUMBIA, Mo. — Auburn guard Mustapha Heron injured his left ankle during a Monday practice, leaving coach Bruce Pearl unsure whether or not he would be available for Tuesday night’s game against Missouri.
Heron’s father Bryan, who played professional basketball in Europe and now works in corrections, insisted his son ice his ankle, tape it, and play through the pain.
His insistence paid off in a big way, as Heron scored 16 points, including 12 in the second half, helping Auburn defeat Missouri 77-72 and earn its first Southeastern Conference victory of the season.
Pearl described Heron’s father as a “big tough guy”, stressing how critical Heron’s play was down the stretch.
“He told Mustapha to take a ball of `tough pills,'” Pearl said. “That tells you what kind of upbringing he’s had… To his credit, he’s got great confidence in his offensive game. He’s got great rhythm, and obviously he made some big plays.”
Auburn (11-5, 1-3 SEC) had five players in double figures. Bryce Brown scored 9 of his 13 points in the first half and finished 4-for-8 from 3-point range, and Ronnie Johnson had 13 points and four assists. Jared Harper and Horace Spencer added 10 points apiece and combined for nine rebounds.
“I’m proud of our effort,” Missouri coach Kim Anderson said. “It’s a frustrating loss, but I thought our guys played hard…We’re a team that doesn’t have a lot of margin for error. We have to play within ourselves.”
Missouri forward Jordan Barnett led all scorers with 20 points to go with six rebounds. Terrence Phillips had 12 points, six rebounds and six assists, and Jordan Geist added 10 points.
Both teams’ desperation for an SEC victory dictated the pace of the game, which saw 14 lead changes.
Missouri (5-10, 0-3) made just 2 of 18 field-goal attempts to start the game, but never trailed by more than two possessions thanks to its rebounding and free-throw shooting. Missouri outrebounded Auburn 28-20 in the first half and made 7 of 9 free-throw attempts as Auburn committed 13 personal fouls.
Missouri took its first lead following a 10-0 run that lasted 4:03, during which Auburn committed four turnovers and eight fouls, including three offensive fouls.
Anderson called a timeout with just over two minutes remaining in the first half, and Missouri responded with a 9-3 run to take a 35-34 halftime lead.
The second half continued in a physical, back-and-forth fashion, and both teams entered the double-bonus with over eight minutes remaining and came down to free-throw shooting. While Auburn shot just 54.5 percent from the free-throw line, the Tigers sank 6 of 6 in the final minute. Missouri was 22-for-33 from the free-throw line (69.7 percent) and 22-for-68 from the field (32.4 percent.)
“Free-throw shooting is a matter of having the right guys at the line,” Pearl said. “That’s all it is. So, at the end, whether it be Jared Harper, or Mustapha Heron, or Ronnie Johnson, getting those good free-throw shooters to the line is the key.”
Auburn: After double-digit losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt, Auburn lost a heart-breaker at home to Ole Miss Saturday, dropping to 0-3 in conference play. This marks Auburn’s first SEC victory of the season, and its first win over Missouri since Jan. 10, 2015.
Missouri: This is the third consecutive game Missouri has lost when leading at halftime and the fourth time this season. Missouri led LSU 40-35 at halftime before falling 88-77, and was up 26-20 on Georgia, eventually losing 71-66.
Auburn forward Danjel Purifoy averages 13.7 points per game and 5.8 rebounds per game — both second on the team — but is out indefinitely with a sprained left ankle. He sustained the injury in the first half of Auburn’s 88-85 loss to Ole Miss Jan. 7.
Missouri’s leading scorer Kevin Puryear has struggled early in conference play. Puryear scored two points on 1-for-7 shooting against Georgia Saturday and had four points and four fouls against Auburn, making just 1 of 10 field-goal attempts.
“He’s been good in practice,” Anderson said of Puryear. “I think he’ll be fine. I know the last couple of games haven’t been very good, but he’s still rebounded well and I thought he played well defensively most of the time. You just have to try to keep his spirits up and try to stay positive. We know he’s a better shooter than 1-for-10.”
Auburn: Visits No. 6 Kentucky Saturday. Auburn won the last meeting 75-70 on Jan. 16, 2016 against then 14th-ranked Kentucky, snapping an 18-game losing streak against the Wildcats.
Missouri: Visits Arkansas Saturday. Missouri has lost four straight to the Razorbacks, most recently 84-72 in Fayetteville on Feb. 20, 2016.