South Carolina was supposed to be a relatively easy game for the Missouri Tigers to get through on Tuesday. Even without Laurence Bowers the Gamecocks are at least a year or two away from relevance as Frank Martin works to build that program. Instead of getting an easy win, fans at Mizzou arena and those of us watching from our couch got slapped in the face by the inconsistent Tigers team we saw so often early on in November. Back then it was one half good, one half bad and it was that way again on Tuesday.
Missouri was beyond dreadful in the first half against South Carolina and it tells you all you need to know about the state of Gamecocks basketball that they only led by eight, 35-27, at the half. After all the Tigers did everything they could to spot their guests to a healthy advantage. As a team Mizzou was 1-14 from three in the first half, and that one came just 34 seconds before the break. Setting aside their terrible shooting from the perimeter, they were also an inconceivable 6-30 from the floor.
With or without Bowers, this Missouri Tigers team is so much better than what they showed in the first 20 minutes on Tuesday. Whether it was a “come to jesus” speech by Frank Haith at halftime, or the team pulling the pieces together on their own, a far more focused and motivated team emerged from the locker room. They erased the eight point deficit by outscoring the Gamecocks 44-30 in the half with a furious finish in the final minutes and slipped off into the night with a 71-65 victory.
The Tigers get credit for the comeback, but it’s only partial because there was absolutely no reason they should have been down to begin with. It’s not as if South Carolina played at an absurd level in any phase of the game. They shot 36.9% from the floor, 6-20 from three and 11-17 from the line. The two teams were even in turnovers and just a hair separated them on the glass. If the Gamecocks had come out and shot over 50%, drained a ton of three pointers, dominated on the glass or forced Phil Pressey and company into a pile of turnovers then a six point margin would have been easier to swallow. A little easier to swallow anyway.
Jabari Brown put up 17 points and seven rebounds and came up big at the end of the game, but overall he shot 5-16 from the floor and 2-9 from the perimeter. Earnest Ross turned in a 21 point, ten rebound double-double but, like Brown, had his share of shooting woes. Ross made just 6-18 attempts. Missouri was able to survive thanks to the efforts of both Ross and Brown because they kept on shooting but it was Alex Oriakhi that helped stabilize the Tigers throughout. He was perfect on the night making all four of his shots and was a flawless 10-10 from the free throw line en route to his 18 points, eleven rebound double-double. Pressey continued to scuffle without Bowers. He did wind up with seven assists, and given that the team was 19-57 from the floor that number probably should have been much higher, but Missouri needs more from their lead guard right now than a 2-8 effort and six points.
As poorly as the Tigers shot in the game, South Carolina was nearly as bad. Only junior forward RJ Slawson hit more than half of his shots for the Gamecocks. He was 5-7 from the floor and pulled down six rebounds to go with his dozen points before fouling out. Fellow junior Brenton Williams came off the bench to lead the team with 16 points. Williams and Slawson were the only two visiting players to crack the ten point threshold.
The Gamecocks (11-7, 1-4) will host the Razorbacks (12-6, 3-2) on Saturday afternoon. Arkansas is coming off a 26 point win over Mississippi State and are currently sixth in the nation in scoring.
#22 Missouri (14-4, 3-2) also has a Saturday home game on the horizon. Their opponent is a Vanderbilt (8-9, 2-3) team that is ranked 250th or lower (out of 347) in scoring, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage. Similar to Tuesday’s game against South Carolina, the Commodores shouldn’t pose too much of a threat. Then again, Vandy did have Ole Miss (16-2, 5-0) beat before a Rebels’ miracle three at the end of regulation sent the game into overtime and we just saw how poorly the Tigers can play in stretches. Keion Bell (ankle) and Bowers (knee) continue to work their way back from injury and one or both may be available to give Mizzou a boost this weekend.