COLUMBIA — On Senior Night, it was a trio of Tiger freshmen who set the table for senior Earnest Ross’ late heroics by initiating the team’s season-saving comeback against a mediocre Texas A&M squad.
With their season on the line, the Tigers looked listless Wednesday night inside Mizzou Arena, at least, until early in the second half. Freshmen forward Torren Jones' first-half suspension for violating team rules didn't help matters either.
The Tigers trailed Texas A&M at halftime, 30-20, and had more turnovers (10) than field goals (seven) in the first half. The 10,655 in attendance had little to cheer about and did very little to try and provide the home Tigers a boost.
With 16:54 remaining in the game and the Tigers trailing the Aggies, 34-24, the student section thundered with a loud ovation during a break in the action.
His brief suspension over, Jones walked onto Norm Stewart Court, replacing sophomore forward Ryan Rosburg in the low post. The payoff was instantaneous.
Jones assisted guard Jabari Brown’s jumper on his first offensive possession. That was immediately after Jones kept the possession alive by deflecting a ball destined for the sidelines off an Aggie defender. The ensuing assist was just the third of the night for the Tigers.
Jones finished with five points, four rebounds and an assist in 13 valuable second-half minutes.
“He gave us a great lift there in the second half,” said Missouri head coach Frank Haith. “He plays with a lot of energy, a lot of passion. He gets his hands on a lot of balls and at a time when we needed it. We needed that kind of energy.”
An assist from freshman guard Wes Clark set up Jones for a layup, which he turned into an and-one, cutting the deficit to seven with 13:22 remaining. After a defensive stop, freshman forward Johnathan Williams III made a layup, which was again assisted by Clark.
“The three freshmen we're playing are playing a lot of meaningful minutes, and I think that says a lot about the future of Mizzou basketball," Haith said.
While most of his teammates scuffled through the game’s first 20 minutes, Williams made his presence known, scoring three points and hauling in six rebounds. The freshman forward finished with seven points and a team-high eight rebounds.
“He had a big bucket there down the stretch, an offensive rebound; J3 (Williams) is going to be a heck of a player,” Haith said
Haith trusted Clark enough to let him play point guard for the most important possessions of the season late in the game. Haith's trust was rewarded as Clark avoided any costly late turnovers.
Ross was the hero Wednesday night, though. In his final regular season game on Norm Stewart Court, the senior helped keep his team’s postseason hopes alive.
But his storybook departure from Mizzou Arena wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions of his youngest teammates.
“I think all of the freshmen gave us great, great excitement today," Ross said. “Those are great future Tigers for Mizzou basketball, and as long as they continue to keep playing the way they’re playing, I think we’re going to have a great stretch and a great chance at the NCAA tournament.”