COLUMBIA — West Virginia coach Bob Huggins was at a loss to explain his team's performance in the first seven minutes of Thursday night’s game.
"We didn’t score seemingly for about an hour and a half,” Huggins said after Missouri’s 80-71 victory over the Mountaineers at Mizzou Arena. “I would say we shot ourselves in the foot, or blew our head off. Whatever you want to write,” Huggins added.
In fact, West Virginia’s first point came on a free throw 5:09 into the game and its first points from the field came seven minutes into the game. The Mountaineers shot just 27.6 percent from the field in the first half and were held to 14 points below their season average of 85.1 prior to Thursday.
Missouri coach Frank Haith credited those stats to an improving Tiger defense.
“I think this team has really taken our focus in being a better defensive team to heart and we just got to stay with it,” Haith said.
Missouri stayed with it for 33 minutes on Thursday. The Tigers led throughout, but a late 22-8 West Virginia run narrowed the deficit to just seven points.
“I still think we did a pretty good job guarding the three-point line," Haith said. "They went in the paint and hurt us, but our offense hurt us, too. In that stretch we took some quick shots, these are things I think you’ll learn as a basketball team."
Haith was also quick to credit Huggins for West Virginia's late run.
“They’ve got a Hall of Fame coach, they weren’t going to quit, they’re going to keep playing, they’re going to keep driving the ball and keep attacking," he said. "Part of it was things we were not doing, but part of it was West Virginia executing and doing some good things, too.”
As usual, the trio of Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson andEarnest Ross carried the load offensively for Missouri, scoring 59 of the team’s 80 points. The Tigers’ terrific triumvirate outscored the Mountaineers during most of the game. Brown, Clarkson and Ross have accounted for 64.4 percent of the team’s offense this season, scoring 415 of the team’s 644 points.
But it was the trio's defending that Haith highlighted after the game.
“We got great length, and that helps us,” Haith said. “When you talk about that starting lineup with Jordan — he’s 6-5 and long. EJ (Ross), Jabari (Brown), they’re all 6-5, they got great quickness and anticipation."
Haith said that his team's combination of man and zone defense knocked West Virginia out of their shooting-heavy offensive rhythm. West Virginia guard Eron Harris averaged more than 20 points per game prior to Thursday, but was held to just eight points.
“We knocked some balls loose, and we not only played man against a great shooting team, but we played a lot of zone, and it allowed us to get to the shooters.”
Clarkson led all scorers with 25 points. Brown chipped in with 18 and Ross scored 16. Freshman Wes Clark finished with nine points and five assists, while Tony Criswell finished a field goal away from a double-double, grabbing 10 rebounds on the night.
The win was Missouri’s 23rd consecutive at Mizzou Arena, the longest streak in the country. It was also the team’s 78th consecutive home non-conference victory.
“It’s tradition and we want to keep that going,” Clarkson said. “Just keep protecting the home court. We can’t let anybody come in here and do whatever they want to do, so we’re just going to keep doing that and make sure we protect our house.”
Missouri will look to extend those streaks at11:30 a.m. Saturday against No. 18 UCLA.
“You’re looking at 11:30 on Saturday morning, recovery starts right now,” Haith said. “UCLA is as good offensively as anybody in the country and they’re a very gifted group of guys. We got our work cut out for us."