If energy was what Missouri needed Saturday coming off a two-point heartbreak at Texas A&M, Phil Pressey provided it early.
Once the goat after a costly late turnover in College Station, the junior guard started hot and didn’t look back, breaking the MU career assist record and leading the No. 21 Tigers (17-6, 6-4 Southeastern Conference) to a 98-79 win over Ole Miss (18-5, 7-3 SEC) in front of 14,013 at a rambunctious Mizzou Arena.
“We know as a team that it’s coming to the end of the stretch in SEC play,” Pressey said. “We have to get our stuff together and get it going because this is when we really need to start making our strides and be the best team we can be. I feel like this is a great way to start it.”
Eleven of Pressey’s 22 points came in the game’s first eight minutes, including three triples on 4-of-7 shooting, not to mention an assist on a Keion Bell corner three, then another on a Jabari Brown three with seven minutes in the half. The assist, which helped put the Tigers up 38-18, tied Pressey with Anthony Peeler for Missouri’s career record of 497 assists, finishing with a game-high four assists and adding a steal and five rebounds.
“The focus for Phil to be the player he’s capable of being is just make guys around you better,” coach Frank Haith said. “We just keep saying that to him. Obviously, when he makes some shots in rhythm in the offense is great … we had really good offensive efficiency tonight.”
After three Marshall Henderson free throws opened the game for the Rebels, Missouri launched an 11-2 run, then a 17-4 run minutes later to put MU up 35-15 in a high-intensity game that featured a new pump-up video as players took the floor, revamped starting five introductions that stationed a drum line at midcourt and louder music throughout.
From there, Brown hit one of his three triples as the teams traded baskets until Ole Miss engineered a run of its own, scoring the half’s final seven points, going to intermission down 50-34.
The Rebels hung with the Tigers in the second half, but could not cut in to the cushioned Missouri lead. After Reginald Buckner hit a jumper in the paint to make it 55-38, Pressey found Brown for a runner from the elbow with 17:33 to play to break Peeler’s record.
“It’s crazy,” Pressey said of breaking the record with another year of eligibility left. “I just want to shatter it so nobody can touch it.”
The Tigers built the lead 22-point lead 11 minutes into the second half on a 9-2 run, featuring a Pressey spinning layup in transition, an Earnest Ross 3-pointer on the ensuing break, then two Alex Oriakhi free throws and a put back to stretch the lead to 80-68.
As the lead grew, tempers flared on both benches as Haith shed his jacket and the game became increasingly physical.
After Laurence Bowers pulled down a defensive rebound with 7:31 to play, Oriakhi got tangled up with Buckner, drawing a Flagrant 1 foul. As Buckner got up, he gestured towards Oriakhi then, as the two drew closer and officials attempted to step in, threw a punch in the Missouri forward’s direction. Bowers intervened and shoved Buckner as benches cleared and Brown and the Rebel’s Murphy Holloway joined the scrum.
By the time calm was restored, Buckner was ejected and Bowers, Holloway and Brown were all pegged with dead-ball technicals.
“I do think the game is more physical than it has been and I think as coaches, we all want the shooter protected, but the game is just a physical game,” Haith said. “Our players have to adjust to it.”
Bowers checked out for the game’s remainder after the altercation, but after a quick rest, Oriakhi returned in time to post a career-high 22 points and 18 rebounds.
“I think I used it in a positive way to go after the offensive glass,” Oriakhi said. “That’s what I did. I’m happy in the way I responded to that incident.”
It’s the second consecutive game where Oriakhi has been assessed a technical foul. At Texas A&M, he and Aggie guard Fabyon Harris got into a confrontation that stripped the Tigers of their momentum during a hot streak.
Haith said that Oriakhi knows he must work to control his aggression and as long as he “channels” it into progressive numbers, he can be a force for Missouri.
“I just don’t want him doing anything crazy to hurt our team,” Haith said. “What he’s gotta understand is that you don’t want to hurt your team and as long as he’s playing with energy and just lets his playing to the talking, I think that’s where he gets lost in. He gets so excited and all you gotta do is just do it on the court. There’s nothing to talk about.”