COLUMBIA – It’s officially March, so maybe this kind of win was exactly what Frank Haith's squad needed.
Maybe Missouri needed a team like Mississippi State, skidding its way across a 10-game losing streak, to come to town. Maybe it needed a win but not another nail-biter. Maybe after two losses and with its postseason future still up in the air, maybe the Tigers needed to enjoy themselves.
“We’ve had some fun games, but most recently, today, I’d say that was one of our most fun,” redshirt junior guard Jabari Brown said after Missouri ran off with Mississippi State, 85-66.
With questions about lack of fan support beginning to swirl, Missouri used its penultimate home game of the year to prove to its smallest weekend conference crowd of the season that it is a product worth paying for.
Even if was against one of the Southeastern Conference's worst teams.
“March is our money time,” Brown said.
There were blocks, seven in total. There was eight 3-point buckets. There were dunks, six of them, an outstanding number for this Tiger team.
“The whole team contributed to it,” said Keanau Post, whose one-handed slam stretched Missouri’s lead to 14 with 16:30 to play. Post finished with 14 points, the most for a Tiger not named Brown, Clarkson or Ross in conference play, and was the pivotal piece in a Missouri attack that featured 32 points from its forwards.
Post, Torren Jones, Ryan Rosburg and Johnathan Williams III combined for quite the line against the Bulldogs, who were playing without top scorer Craig Sword and fell to 3-13 in SEC play with the loss.
The Missouri forwards shot a combined 15-for-16 from the field, combined for 15 rebounds and seven blocks, and committed no turnovers.
After searching for an effort from his forwards like this for more than two months to start the season, Haith got a similar one two weeks ago against Tennessee. But that one didn’t have Saturday’s flash.
That one didn’t have Post performing spin moves and jump hooks on the block. That one didn’t have Jones galloping down the lane and dunking the basketball like he was angry. And that one didn’t have a good number of fans leaving early, knowing victory was in the bag.
“We have played in a bunch of games, even the ones we won, that have come down to two or three possessions, so it was good to pull away” Haith said.
By the last TV timeout Saturday, Mizzou Arena looked emptier than it had been all year. But that was because the Tigers took care of business before the final buzzer.
“That's when it’s fun,” Haith added. “When everyone has a hand in us winning.”
Haith meant for that statement to be clichéd, but it could be taken quite literally. Missouri’s season-high 19 assists were what led to the high-energy, crowd-pleasing dunks in transition, with Clarkson leading the way with seven dimes.
Clarkson had one of those dunks on his way to 14 points, but made more of a difference with his eyes. More than during any game this season, Missouri’s guards made a conscious effort to get the ball in the post, and more than during any game this season, that effort was rewarded.
It began with Clarkson, who threw a rocket pass inside to set up a Post hook shot and set up Jones perfectly in transition. That pass-first mentality trickled down to Wes Clark (six assists) and Brown (five).
“He had great vision,” Haith said of Clarkson.
Although the details of Saturday’s game were unique, it wasn’t difficult to see the end result coming. Mississippi State came to Columbia the holder of the second-lowest RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) among schools from major conferences. It didn’t have its best player and it was facing a Missouri team with everything on the line after two consecutive losses.
Maybe the change in the calendar will signify a change in these Tigers.
“It’s March,” Haith said. “We’re not relaxing.”