For a day, Missouri can stop fighting and have fun.
Somewhere in the middle of Missouri’s 18-3 second-half run, the Tigers (20-9, 8-8 Southeastern Conference) looked like an NCAA tournament team.
Granted, it came against Mississippi State (13-16, 3-13 Southeastern Conference), the second-worst major conference team in all of college basketball. Entering the game, the Bulldogs’ RPI ranking was .4736, good enough for 219th nationwide. Leading scorer Craig Sword didn’t travel with the team to Columbia to attend his grandmother’s funeral.
When things started to get bad for MSU, quickly they got worse. “We don’t deal very well with adversity,” coach Rick Ray said.
Still, Missouri showed up in a fight for its postseason life, one it has been waging for nearly a month now. As Mizzou Arena’s 9,403 occupants dozed off as the Tigers whacked away at Mississippi State, junior forward Torren Jones skied to knock a shot out of the air in transition. When he landed, Tiger Nation was on its collective feet. Up by 27, Mizzou was no longer fighting. At least for Saturday — in a dominant 85-68 win — it could have fun.
“We’re fighting for something and not everybody is in a position to make the tourney,” junior guard Jabari Brown said. “So just cherish that and go out and play as hard as you can and have fun.”
The Tigers scored on seven straight possessions during the run and Jones punctuated the rally with a thunderous dunk on the break. Missouri stuck a foot in ground and pedalled past the Bulldogs with ease, snapping a two game losing streak.
“You always want to bounce back after losses,” Brown said. “This is March now and we don’t want to lose any games in March.”
It was a much needed respite for Missouri, which was jettisoned from many analysts’ tournament field after consecutive losses to Alabama and Georgia. Saturday, they were back on top of their game, able to exhale after sucking in gulps of oxygen between road trips.
The Tigers moved the like a pinball machine, spinning MSU defenders like wheels and careening off them like bumpers. Coach Frank Haith emptied his bench in the contest’s closing moments. Mizzou dished a season-high 19 assists and jammed seven dunks. Eight different players scored.
“Everybody contributed,” Haith said. “That’s when it’s fun.”
It also swings momentum back Missouri’s way as the team stares down the barrell of the SEC Tournament and the NCAA tournament. The Tigers host sixth-place Texas A&M on Wednesday for Senior Night, then wrap up the regular season at Tennessee on March 8.
“It’s March; we’re not relaxing,” Haith said. “We got to get ready for Wednesday.”