Mizzou escapes with 80-71 victory against West Virginia

Mizzou escapes with 80-71 victory against West Virginia

USATSI_7599695_152757740_lowres

Jordan Clarkson led all scorers with 25 points. (Photo: USA Today)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Jordan Clarkson netted a game-high 25 points and Missouri held on for an 80-71 victory over West Virginia in the Big 12/SEC Challenge Thursday night at Mizzou Arena.

Clarkson knocked down 9 of 17 shots and tacked on seven free throws en route to becoming the first Tiger since 2006 to record 20 or more points in four straight games. Jabari Brown (18) and Earnest Ross (16) also finished in double figures for the Tigers, with Brown registering 12 of his points in the second half.

“I thought it was a great win for us,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “West Virginia came in the game averaging over 80 points a game and I thought for 33 minutes we were terrific defensively. They’re an outstanding three-point shooting team and our emphasis all week was two-hand close-outs and taking away vision, and I thought we did an outstanding job with that. They’re going to win a lot of ball games in their league, so it was a good win for us, a good resume builder.”

MU extended its lead to 21 early in the second half behind a 9-2 run orchestrated almost entirely by Ross. The senior guard got the scoring started with a 3-pointer off the feed from Brown and capped it off with a steal-and-score to push the score to 45-24 less than two minutes into the second half.

The Mountaineers chipped away at the deficit over the next few minutes and had an opportunity to pull within 14 pending the completion of a 3-point play by Terry Henderson. However, the sophomore guard was unable to knock down the free throw and Mizzou immediately took back the momentum, using a 3-pointer by Brown as the catalyst for a 12-2 run, capped off with a jumper from Clarkson at the 8:55 mark that forced WVU coach Bob Huggins to call timeout and gave the Tigers their largest lead of the evening at 65-40.

“Obviously Brown’s the guy [and] Clarkson’s very, very good,” Huggins said. “But you can’t let them in the lane all day. They can’t live in the lane. You make a couple threes and all of a sudden you think they hurt you from three. They didn’t hurt us from three. What hurt us is that they lived in the lane.”

The Tigers began to ease up after the timeout and the Mountaineers made them pay, converting a turnover by Williams into a 3-pointer for Gary Browne on the other end that to cut the margin to 20. The two teams then exchanged buckets, until Juwan Staten corralled a missed 3-pointer from Brown and took it all the way for an easy bucket that sliced the score to 68-51.

USATSI_7599474_152757740_lowres

Jabari Brown scored 12 of his 18 points against West Virginia in the second half. (Photo: USA Today)

As Mizzou stumbled along, West Virginia continued to chip away. Down nine with 47 seconds left, Gary Browne threw up a 3-pointer. His attempt missed, but fell into the hands of Eron Harris, whose put back attempt clanged off the bucket and back into the hands of Browne, who promptly missed his second shot of the sequence, but the ball somehow found its way into the hands of Rémi Dibo who hit his jumper to cut Mizzou’s lead to seven with 31 seconds left.

That would be as close as the Mountaineers would get the rest of the way as Tony Criswell, Wes Clark and Brown all made free throws down the stretch to ice the 80-71 victory for Mizzou.

With the victory—its 78th consecutive non-conference win at Mizzou Arena—Missouri improved to 8-0 on the year and extended its national-best home-court winning streak to 23 games.

“I mean, it’s tradition. We want to keep that going. Just keep protecting the home court,” Clarkson said. “We just can’t let anybody come in here and do whatever they want to do. So, we are just going to keep doing that and protect the house.”

After hitting just one of its first six shots from the field, Missouri’s offense found its groove, tearing off a 14-4 scoring run that extended its lead to 16-4 entering the under-12 media timeout. That early scoring binge was sparked by an old-fashioned 3-point play by Clarkson and was capped off with a triple from Tony Criswell. While their offensive outburst was impressive, it was the Tigers’ efforts on the defensive end that sustained the drive. West Virginia struggled against the zone defense, opening the game 1-for-9 on field goal attempts with three turnovers.

“We’ve got a lot of long guys that can really disrupt people’s shots,” Clarkson said in explaining why the zone was so effective. “So when they are shooting, they are shooting over bigger guys and that always has an effect on people.”

Missouri coach Frank Haith (Image: USA Today)

Missouri coach Frank Haith (Image: USA Today)

Clarkson pushed the score to 25-11 with a 3-point play at the 9:06 mark, but the Mountaineers clawed their way back, using an 11-4 run—capped off by a two-handed slam from sophomore guard Terry Henderson—to close the gap to just seven points with under two minutes remaining. That late surge seemed to awaken the Tigers, who rattled off seven unanswered points to take a 36-22 lead at the break.

“It was a hot start both offensively and defensively,” Haith said. “We got stops and scored in transition, and when we keep the ball moving, we’re going to be pretty good offensively. We didn’t settle and we were getting stops, they both work together.”

The Tigers finished the game shooting nearly 53 percent from the field, but just 67.7 percent (21-31) from the line with five triples on 16 attempts. They won the rebounding battle 40-32, picked up 36 points in the paint and had assists on 13 of their 27 buckets. Defensively, they forced 10 Mountaineer turnovers and limited them to 41 percent shooting from the field.

“Most definitely, to be a good defensive team all year long, we have to bring it for 40 minutes,” Criswell said. “The 33 minutes were good and we are just going to keep building and get better.”

Mizzou will face its biggest challenge thus far Saturday morning when No. 18 UCLA rolls into Columbia. The Bruins enter the game averaging 90.6 points per game on 55 percent shooting, both of which rank in the top 10 nationally.

The game will be nationally televised on CBS, with tip-off set for 11:30 a.m.

“It’s a tremendous challenge,” Haith said. “We’re being smart and intelligent about what we do tonight to prepare ourselves for a tremendous game on Saturday morning. UCLA is as good offensively as anybody in the country and they’re very gifted group of guys. They’re well coached. We have our work cut out for us Saturday morning.”

Brian Haenchen founded Hank’s Sports Blog in 2009. You can follow him on Twitter (@Brian_Haenchen) or email him (haenchenb9@gmail.com).