COLUMBIA — Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings had seen his team have first-half performances like the one it did Wednesday night against Missouri.
What Stallings didn’t expect, was for his offensively-challenged team to be leading Missouri with 21 points after holding the Tigers to just 20 in the first half. The 20-point output was Missouri's lowest first-half total since being held to 19 points in a March 2009 game against Kansas.
Missouri trailed after shooting a lethargic 33 percent against a Vanderbilt team that had played only slightly better than the Tigers. Missouri had one more basket (seven) than turnovers (six) and Haith’s starting five had accounted for just 11 first-half points.
Former Missouri football star Jeremy Maclin’s appearance on the Mizzou Arena Jumbotron drew the loudest applause from the 9,635 fans in attendance during a listless, yawn-inspiring first 20 minutes. Even so, Missouri coach Frank Haith made minimal halftime adjustments.
When asked how the Tigers would respond in the second half, Missouri star guard Jordan Clarkson said, "Just do what we do: push the ball, make shots and not lose their shooters like we did in the first half."
Whether Haith reformulated his team's game plan or not, the Tigers came out looking stronger and more confident in the second half and defeated the Commodores, 67-64. (Box Score)
"You’re playing a good team … just look across the country – there are other league scores like that," Haith said of Missouri's first half. "We missed some shots, but I do think, also, we weren’t ourselves. I think we had some aggressive plays where we were not sharing as well as we had been."
Haith suggested his team didn’t have the necessary mental approach in the first half. Their focus was off. The offensive execution was the worst it had been in a long time. The Tigers' confidence, however, remained intact.
"It was tough, but we knew we were going to pick it up in the second half and we were going to make shots," Clarkson said. "We have confidence in our offense that we’re going to score."
And score they did. Missouri amassed 47 points in a second-half outburst on 60.9 percent shooting to stave off a pesky Vanderbilt team that had defeated the Tigers in the teams’ first meeting this season.
Stallings said the way Missouri's ball screens created open shots against the Commodores’ zone defense ultimately made the difference in the Tigers’ offensive success.
"Most of the time, you teach your guards to fight through the ball screen, and if you can fight through the ball screen yourself, then you defeat the purpose of it," Stallings said. "They take advantage of you when you do that, because they’ll set that screen with Ross. So you defeat the ballscreen yourself, and (Ross) is back (behind the three-point line) and we don’t rotate up and get to him."
Haith continued to exploit the Commodores' new-found weakness the rest of the game and the Tigers made six-of-nine three-point attempts in the second half.
Clarkson led all scorers with 21 points on five-of-nine shooting. The junior also made all 11 of his free throw attempts. Ross was four-of-eight from three-point range and finished with 16 points. Freshman guard Wes Clark chipped in with nine points off the bench. Clarkson and Ross carried the team offensively with junior guard Jabari Brown’s logging just 10, his lowest of the season.
The win helped the Tigers avoid a significant setback in their quest to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. It was Missouri’s third consecutive victory and it moved the team’s conference record above .500 for the first time since late January. The Tigers are now in a four-way tie for fourth place in the conference with LSU, Mississippi and Tennessee. The top four finishers receive a bye in next month’s conference tournament.
The confidence Missouri displayed after an abysmal first half could play a key role in determining the rest of the season.
"We just got to come ready and stay with the same confidence, stay even-keeled through the rest of these games," Clarkson said.