COLUMBIA, Mo. — Bob Huggins and his West Virginia Mountaineers were supposed to give undefeated Missouri its toughest test of the young season Thursday night at Mizzou Arena.
The Mountaineers were supposed to be able to shoot, too.
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But the Mountaineers didn’t make a field goal for the first 6:59 and the Tigers raced to 9-0 and 25-10 leads and never trailed in an 80-71 victory that wasn’t as close as the final score. West Virginia came in averaging 85.1 points and 10 three-pointers but managed only 22 points in the first half when it missed 20 of 28 shots, including 10 of 11 three-pointers.
How much of West Virginia’s frigid start was influenced by Missouri’s defense depends on which coach you choose to believe.
Missouri’s Frank Haith: “For 33 minutes, we were terrific defensively. They’re an outstanding three-point shooting team. Our emphasis all week was two-hand closeouts and take-away vision (of the shooters). I thought we did an outstanding job with that.”
West Virginia’s Huggins: “We didn’t score seemingly for about an hour and a half. I’d say yeah, we shot ourselves in the foot. We took horrible shots for us. It wasn’t like we had to take them at the end of the shot clock, either. We had plenty of time to get a better one.”
Huggins could not deny that the Tigers’ length, especially in the backcourt, bothered West Virginia. The Mountaineers’ leading scorers are 6-3 and 6-1 guards; Missouri’s guards Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown are both 6-5 with long arms and quick hands.
“When they’re shooting, they’re shooting over bigger guys,” said Clarkson, who outscored West Virginia by himself, 12-11, through the first 11 minutes. “That always has an effect on people.”
By the time West Virginia finally warmed up, Missouri was up by 25 and only nine minutes remained. The Mountaineers got as close as 76-69 with 31 seconds left but really, about all that remained in doubt down the stretch was whether Missouri’s big three all would finish with 20 points for a second straight game.
Clarkson did his part, leading all scorers with 25, but Brown and Earnest Ross came up a bit short, with 18 and 16, respectively. All three shot better than 50 percent while no West Virginia player hit more than half his shots.
“With young guys, they try to do things that they can’t do sometimes,” Huggins said. “(Like) step-back 3s off the dribble. We’re not going to make those. We don’t need to try to manufacture shots we can’t make. We need to manufacture shots that we can make.”
Still, Huggins allowed that Missouri “did a good job.” Even though the nine-point margin of victory equaled the 8-0 Tigers’ smallest of the season, this was either their best effort or second-best after their 92-80 victory over Hawaii in Kansas City last month.
“They’re going to win a lot of ball games in their league so it was a really, really good win for us,” Haith said. “Good resume builder.”
The Tigers don’t have long to wait for another chance to dress up their resume. No. 18 UCLA (8-0) visits Mizzou Arena on Saturday in a nationally-televised game (CBS) at 11:30 a.m. The Bruins, led by 6-9 sophomore point forward Kyle Anderson, are averaging 90.6 points on 55.3 percent shooting.
“UCLA is as good offensively as anybody in the country,” Haith said. “They’re a very gifted group of guys, well coached. We have our work cut out for us.”
Sounds like the Tigers will be tested, for real this time.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter (@stanmcneal) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.