COLUMBIA — Frank Haith spent the postgame news conference running his hand down his face slowly, from forehead to chin, and repeating the motion in anguish.
A third time.
You almost couldn’t even tell he was the winning coach.
"Like going to the dentist" was how Haith described Missouri’s nerve-rattling but maybe season-saving 57-56 home win over Texas A&M. "We knew it was going to be a dogfight," he said.
But he couldn’t have predicted such a bloody mess.
The Tigers spent the entire second half of Senior Night clawing back from an 11-point deficit, eventually taking their first lead with two free throws from Earnest Ross and 7.3 seconds left.
Those last seven seconds seemed to take forever. Missouri’s fate hung in a long, suspenseful balance as the referees meticulously reviewed two out-of-bounds calls.
The first time, the call went in Texas A&M’s favor. The Aggies couldn't capitalize on the extra possession, though. The second time, the call went Missouri’s way, and the Tigers survived.
Ross packed a game's-worth of heavy lifting into the final minute, after being virtually invisible for the first 39 minutes.
Ross, a senior from Cary, N.C., who had a small entourage of friends and family fly in for what could be his last home game, went 0-for-6 from the field, including 0-for-4 from three, until the final minute.
But then he started to save the Tigers, which could help save the team from returning to Mizzou Arena for a potential NIT game.
With 96 seconds remaining, Ross made the second of two free throws for his first point of the game. He then jumped a pass for a steal and hit two more freebies after being fouled on a breakaway.
After the Aggies extended their lead to three with a bucket on the other end, Ross answered with a spinning move through the lane. His layup brought Missouri within one point of the Aggies with 16 seconds to play.
"I didn’t want to settle for too many jumpers anymore," Ross said. "It wasn’t falling, so why shoot it?"
A&M's Jamal Jones missed the front half of a one-and-one free-throw situation, and Ross grabbed the rebound from the low block. Aggies guard Jordan Green grabbed Ross' arm with 7.7 seconds to play and the Tigers in the double bonus.
Ross pumped his fist, sharp and tough but not quite in full, as his first ensuing free throw tied the game, completing the long, drawn out comeback. Ross again pumped his fist — this time so emphatically that he spun around — when his second free throw gave Missouri its first lead of the game.
Then it was Ross again, with less than three seconds left, flicking the Aggies’ last-chance inbound pass out of the paint and up the sideline, where it trickled into the hands of Jordan Clarkson as time expired.
"Win it any possible way," Ross said. "That’s all I care about, and I’m happy for it."
Ross came to Missouri three years ago from Auburn for a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, and he has set a goal to make it past the first round this season.
Just making the tournament would have been a long shot if the Tigers hadn't held on against Texas A&M, which entered Wednesday ranked 113th in the nation in Ratings Percentage Index. A loss would have thrown Missouri far off the NCAA Tournament bubble.
The win preserves the Tigers' position, even if it is still a precarious one.
The tension inside Mizzou Arena down the stretch Wednesday made it clear what was at stake, as most of the 10,655 fans in attendance stood, knowing they were witnesses of a make-or-break moment.
They will remember Ross giving himself quite a senior send-off.
Now the Tigers travel to Knoxville, Tenn., for their regular season finale on Saturday, a game that could boost the Tigers' tournament resume if they top the Volunteers.
"We have to play better," Haith said.
Then he grabbed his chin.