The ball left Earnest Ross’s hands with Missouri down by three and the buzzer sounded, leaving the rest to fate. With the game finally over and out of their hands, the Tigers watched Saturday’s last play in a way that could describe not only how they played most of the game, but also how they’ve played most of this season.
Standing, waiting, wishing.
The Tigers stood around while one of the Southeastern Conference's worst rebounding teams won the battle of the boards, waited until the second half to play with anything resembling life and wished they could have stopped the man they knew could kill them going in, the erratically brilliant Marshall Henderson.
Henderson torched Missouri for 29 points and Jarvis Summers added 16 to overshadow a 67-point performance by the Tigers' big three, and the Rebels handed Missouri its first three-game losing streak of the Frank Haith era with a 91-88 defeat Saturday at Tad Smith Coliseum in Oxford.
Missouri now sits at 4-6 in SEC play with eight games to go, the two against Tennessee offering the only matchups against teams in the top five of the league standings. Like Ross’s failed buzzer-beater — which didn’t have nearly enough juice — Missouri’s NCAA Tournament hopes are falling fast. The Tigers have been just good enough to raise eyebrows and inspire “what-ifs” — qualifying as the last team in on ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi's mock projection — but probably not consistent enough to have staying power.
They needed just a little bit more from the front court. They need just a little bit bulkier of a conference schedule to finally prove themselves. They needed just a little bit more of something Saturday.
Missouri didn’t get quite as much as it needed from junior guard Jabari Brown, whose first field goal came with 2:17 left in the first half with his team down 18 points. It didn’t get quite the amount of hands it needed in the face of Henderson, who used his housefly-type motor to hit an array of dazzling 3-pointers, often with Tiger defenders in hot pursuit.
And it didn’t get quite enough strength it needed from Ross — who has a body made for the NFL Combine — on the last shot, which didn’t stretch quite as far as it needed to and scratched off the front of the rim before hitting the ground quietly.
Ross couldn’t get his entire frame behind the shot because he was forced to catch the inbound pass while backpedaling. His attempt was short because the pass was long, highlighting a season-long north-to-south imbalance with this Tiger team that was rectified just partially on Saturday.
Ryan Rosburg scored 11 points, his best effort on the block in nearly 2 1/2 months. But Mississippi managed to hold Johnathan Williams III, Missouri’s other starting forward, scoreless on their way to out-rebounding the Tigers 34-33.
Rebels forward Aaron Jones ripped down 11 rebounds and Sebastian Saiz recorded 10, but Mississippi’s most important board came courtesy of Anthony Perez, who grabbed an offensive rebound off a foul shot before being fouled and hitting two free-throws to extend the lead to 88-80 with 45 seconds left.
Mississippi jumped out to a 22-14 lead over the first eight minutes of the game, which were not available on Columbia television because of an overlap with St. Louis Blues hockey on Fox Sports Midwest. Once the Tigers showed up on television, their effort disappeared, with Missouri falling behind by 15 at halftime at the hand of the Rebels’ relentless 3-point attack. Ole Miss made 14 3-pointers, a school record.
The Tigers' effort reappeared immediately as the second half began, even sprouting from the most unlikely of places. The Tigers scored the half’s first six points, and within six minutes had cut the deficit to just four, thanks to eight quick points by Rosburg.
“He did a great job of finishing at the rim,” Ross said in a phone conversation roughly an hour after the game. “I’m proud of him.”
The Tigers got as close as 79-78 with 3:17 to play after a 3-pointer from Ross. The Tigers trailed by just three with 1:40 to play, but points from Summers, White and Perez’s shots turned Missouri’s chances from maybe to miracle.
Like they did at the beginning of the second half, like this team often does when pushed to the absolute brink, the Tigers fought back.
“Just playing with no conscious,” was how Ross described it.
Brown and Wes Clark connected on 3-pointers in the final 34 seconds and they were rewarded with one last chance when Summers caught an inbound pass and stepped out of bounds with 0.9 seconds left.
It was just a little too late. And just a little too little.
Ross had less than a second to catch, shoot and tie the game, so everything had to run perfectly. It didn’t, leaving the Tigers to wish it did.
“I was hoping we’d go into overtime,” Ross said. “I thought it was going to go in.”