COLUMBIA – Jabari Brown delivered a highlight-heavy performance Saturday against No. 11 Kentucky, but even after scoring a career-high 33 points and nearly bringing the Tigers back from a 16-point deficit, the junior guard couldn't let go of a play that he didn't make in his team's 84-79 loss.
Trailing 80-77 with less than 30 seconds remaining and the shot clock winding down, Brown’s defensive assignment was freshman Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison. Harrison received a pass in the corner from his twin brother, Andrew Harrison. Dribbling with his left hand, Harrison dashed past Brown, driving the baseline Brown failed to seal, banking the reverse layup off the backboard and through the hoop.
Harrison's hoop finally allowed the Wildcats to breathe and dashed any hopes that Missouri could complete its comeback and pull off the type of home upset that would truly legitimize this group.
“I think I played really well, but that last play I didn’t get a stop and they scored a bucket,” a dejected Brown said. ‘That’s tough, you know. … It’s killing me right now.”
While Brown was down on himself in the immediate aftermath of the game, many Missouri fans will remember his performance more fondly.
There was the three-minute stretch midway through the second half when Brown scored 11 of Missouri’s 13 points, narrowing Kentucky’s lead from 16 to just three. There was the gravity-defying dunk over Wildcats star Julius Randle. There was the four-point play from well beyond the three-point line with 1:33 remaining.
If not for Brown’s career game and backcourt mate Jordan Clarkson’s 28 points, the outcome of Saturday’s game — played in front of a lively crowd of 11,742, including a full student section — would have fallen out of question much earlier.
The duo scored 18 consecutive points for Missouri (16-5, 4-4) during an 8:35 stretch of the second half and finished with 77 percent of Missouri’s points. The Tigers essentially played two-on-five against Kentucky (16-5, 6-2), a team with perhaps the greatest freshman class ever.
“We were just trying to win the game,” Brown said. “We were in position to make plays, it wasn’t on my mind to take over; I’m just trying to make plays. Whatever it takes to win, we’re trying to do it.”
But Missouri, which had won its previous two SEC games and appeared to be building some momentum, is still hunting for a signature victory to stamp on what could be a much-scrutinized NCAA Tournament résumé come March. The Tigers will get another chance to knock off a national power Tuesday at No. 3 Florida, but that could be considerably more difficult than what they faced Saturday against a young team that had been inconsistent away from Rupp Arena. Florida, meanwhile, hasn't lost a home game since March 2012 against eventual champion Kentucky.
In the days prior to Saturday’s game, Kentucky coach John Calipari said his team wouldn’t face a better backcourt than Brown and Clarkson this season. His opinion was reinforced by the time the final buzzer sounded and Calipari spoke with Missouri’s dynamic duo briefly on the court.
“I said, 'Let me tell you, you’re both special now,'” Calipari said. “We don’t have to play Missouri again, do we? Great.”
The teams don't meet again, and Missouri is running out of opportunities to show its mettle.
On Saturday, the same failings that have dogged the Tigers all season prevented them from notching a win.
Missouri’s big man trio of Tony Criswell, Ryan Rosburg and Johnathan Williams III combined for just one field goal and three total points. The Tigers didn’t grab an offensive rebound until the second half.
“We have to, we have to get something,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said when asked if those players need to produce more. “Johnathan Williams, he never got in the flow of the game. He goes down (with foul trouble). He’s our best low-post presence. He never really got in the flow of the game, and that really hurt us. We need something out of those guys.”
Getting nothing from them, and getting just eight points from Earnest Ross, who missed much of the first half with foul trouble, nullified the outstanding performances of Brown and Clarkson.
The duo, which seemed to be free-styling once the Tigers got into a deep hole, excited a crowd that braved icy roads to make it for the noon tipoff. Though the arena was less than 80 percent full, the fans grew loud during Missouri's comeback — especially when Brown, out of a timeout, drove the lane and threw a one-handed jam on Randle.
On the biggest stage of Missouri’s season, Brown and Clarkson delivered award-winning performances. With so little help, that wasn't enough.
“I don’t think Jabari gets credit for how good of a player he is,” Haith said. “I think both of those guys (Brown and Clarkson) are terrific players, and they left it out there on the court, they gave it everything they had.”
Supervising editor is Mark Selig