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Missouri men's basketball finally gets "big" spark

Saturday, February 15, 2014 | 9:10 p.m. CST; updated 7:15 a.m. CST, Monday, February 17, 2014
Missouri guard Jabari Brown sets up a shot against Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon on Saturday at Mizzou Arena.

COLUMBIA – Warning: This next sentence may seem strange.

Torren Jones and Keanau Post bailed out Jabari Brown.

How many times has that been written?

Brown and the rest of the Missouri basketball team's guards have been the ones doing the heavy lifting all season with herculean scoring efforts and clutch plays down the stretch. Saturday's 75-70 win over Tennessee was no different in that regard — Jordan Clarkson hit two big floaters late, and Brown scored 24 points while making a steal with six seconds left to ice the win. 

But for at least one play in the first half, it was the Jones and Post, two forwards who had yet to make a real impact, who saved Brown. 

Jones and Post turned Brown's turnover into Missouri points with a block and an explosive dunk, respectively, on the other end. The eye-opening effort — especially from Post, who at times this season hasn't seemed even coordinated enough to get above the rim — proved contagious. For stretches Saturday, Frank Haith's forwards led the Tigers while Brown and Clarkson were quiet offensively.

Missouri got 29 points combined from Jones, Post, Ryan Rosburg, Tony Criswell and Johnathan Williams III in the most comprehensive offensive effort all season from its frontcourt. Haith promised this type of performance would come, and it finally did. 

“Coach keeps telling us to be ready,” said Jones, who had eight points on 4-of-5 shooting, five rebounds and two crowd-igniting blocks. “It was very needed. We see the guards take over the game so much and we feel like maybe we’re not as important to the game.”

But the forwards, after playing second-fiddle for 24 games, decided early to make an impact. Williams scored his first basket in three games on an elbow jumper in the game’s fourth minute. Williams rarely takes that shot and when he does, it is never with as much confidence as he showed Saturday. 

The same can be said for Jones’ hook shot and Post’s drive, not to mention Criswell’s 3-point shot. They were all clicking, surprisingly, randomly, cohesively. 

Effectively.

“In some of those droughts that the guards have," Jones said, "it's like who else is going to be scoring? It’s kind of on us to pick up the slack.”

During the last 13 minutes of the first half, the forwards combined to score 16 of 22 Missouri points, while both Brown and Clarkson were held scoreless. 

How many times has that been written?

“Teams are going to keep keying on us,” Brown said, talking about the big three, which also includes senior guard Earnest Ross. “But I think that helped our bigs get free. It makes teams play the guards more honest. If they don’t want to, they will continue to see games like this from our big men.”

Haith and Brown may have been the only ones who saw this coming. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin sure didn’t.

His frontcourt features behemoths in Jeronne Maymon and All-SEC candidate Jarnell Stokes, both listed at 6-foot-8 and a whopping 260 pounds. Martin said his game plan was to stop Missouri's guards from driving by encouraging his forwards to release from their assignments when Brown, Clarkson and Ross attacked the basket.

It sort of worked.

The Volunteers held Clarkson to just seven points, his lowest output all season, by creating a wall of two or three defenders on the block every time he drove — not unlike the barrier Missouri fans set up outside Mizzou Arena earlier in the day to combat the arrival of Westboro Baptist Church, which was on campus to protest Michael Sam.

Sam, who announced he was gay last week, and the rest of the SEC runner-up football team, was honored by the school at halftime to thunderous applause. The celebration could go on when Missouri secured a vital victory to keep them in the NCAA Tournament hunt. Strangely enough, thanks to the big men.

"If Mizzou beat us, their bigs had to beat us," Martin said. "We told our bigs, 'We rather you help more, and make them make plays with their big guys. Late in the game they aren't going to go t0 the big guys every time down.' We couldn't allow their guards to get their heads up early and make plays."

It's ironic that Martin's strategy didn't work, given the Tigers' obvious struggles on the block all season. But Brown, who's had to cover for a lack of big-man production all season, is seeing improvement from Missouri's much-maligned group.

"You guys always ask us how we feel about our bigs," said Brown. "We have confidence in them. I feel like they're getting better and better every game."

How many times has that been written?


Supervising editor is Mark Selig.


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