ATLANTA — Jordan Clarkson sauntered toward the bench slow and stiff, the game about to be tied again, his foul quota tapped.
He couldn’t remember the last time he fouled out, and he certainly couldn’t remember the last time the long walk back to the bench ended with a seat next to Jabari Brown, who also fouled out.
“I don’t know if I had any good thoughts,” coach Frank Haith said with a relieved smile after his team's elimination game Thursday.
Clarkson watched for the last four minutes, Brown the final six. They felt, Brown said, "kind of helpless."
But both said what they saw from their seats wasn't surprising, even if it surprised fans and media members.
The Tigers didn’t fold without their two best scorers.
Instead, they flourished as a lineup including little-used reserve Shane Rector and fringe contributors Wes Clark and Johnathan Williams III, who spent the season’s most pivotal five minutes scoring 14 points to lead Missouri to a 91-83 double-overtime win against Texas A&M in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
For their hard-fought effort — 57 total fouls were called and Missouri (22-10) shot 53 free throws — the Tigers were rewarded with a noon Friday matchup against top-seeded Florida, which also happens to be the No. 1 team in the nation and went through the regular season SEC schedule without a loss.
“They’re the best team in the country," Haith said. “We’ve got to have a 40-minute game plan against them.”
That wouldn’t have been nearly enough Thursday.
Missouri wrestled with Texas A&M (17-15) for a full 50 minutes, with neither team earning a lead larger than nine. Twice — at the end of regulation and then at the end of the first overtime — the Tigers had possession and a chance to win at the buzzer.
Twice, Missouri failed to get a ball to the rim: First when a Clarkson pass intended for Williamswas tipped and bodies dove to the floor, and then while Brown watched from the bench as a Clarkson layup was blocked.
The Aggies kept clawing back into the game.
Two Fabyon Harris free throws put Texas A&M up 63-62, its first lead in more than 27 minutes, with 3:45 left to play in regulation. The lead change completed a steady but slightly glacial comeback from Missouri’s eight-point halftime advantage.
Texas A&M guard Alex Caruso followed more than a minute later with a 3-pointer to extend the Aggies' lead to four, but clutch free-throw shooting by Brown and Earnest Ross sent the game into extra time.
Clarkson scored the first four points of overtime, but the Aggies once again fought, this time from a five-point deficit with one minute to play. They made up ground much more quickly during their second comeback.
Brown watched from the bench, arms interlocked with Torren Jones, as his fifth foul resulted in two Caruso free throws that cut the lead to four. Brown finished with a team-high 26 points, and as he took a seat he yelled to Clarkson and swung his fist, as if to say, “You got this!”
That was Brown surrendering all control, but it would be out of Clarkson's hands soon, too.
Up two points with 11 seconds left, Clark inbounded to Clarkson under the Aggies basket. Clarkson took a few dribbles before searching back for Clark, which is when the Aggies took the term “full-court press” and turned it on its head.
Brown watched, arms now locked with Ryan Rosburg, as Clarkson’s pass found the hands of a diving Blake McDonald – the smallest player on the floor and a former walk-on – who skipped a pass to a cutting Caruso before flying out of bounds.
Caruso hit the wide-open layup to tie the game at 77-77 with 8 seconds remaining.
“Heck of a play,” Aggies coach Billy Kennedy said. “But we’re not satisfied.”
Much of Kennedy’s dissatisfaction stemmed from how many times he heard the whistle. Both teams combined to shoot 81 free throws, with Missouri shooting 75 percent from the stripe and getting 12 of its 14 second-overtime points from the line.
And while Missouri lost Clarkson and Brown, the Tigers eventually forced Texas A&M’s entire starting frontcourt – Jordan Green, Antwan Space and Kourtney Roberson – to foul out.
“I’m all for the new rules, but you got to be kidding me,” Kennedy said. “They’re hard not to foul.”
The elimination of the Aggies front line allowed the Tigers to dominate the boards. They out-rebounded Texas A&M 48-28 thanks in large part to Williams, who recorded his first double-double since early December. The freshman ripped down 15 rebounds to go along with 11 points, four assists and two blocks.
“That’s something we have really been harping on with our guys,” Haith said. “Obviously Johnathan was terrific.”
Even when Williams wasn’t terrific initially, he made it work. Two minutes into the second overtime, he grabbed a rebound off a Ross miss and missed the put-back. But Williams, fighting through two Aggie forwards, got his own rebound and finished in traffic to put Missouri up by three.
After giving A&M second chance after second chance, the Tigers finally capitalized on one.
“Their young guys were better,” Kennedy said.
That includes Clark and Rector, the pair of freshmen guards who have rarely been on the court together this season. They guided Missouri through a sloppy final period and shot a combined 7-for-10 from the free-throw line in the second overtime. Rector also had two steals in four minutes.
“Hopefully we can move forward with those guys and know we can go out and still have a chance to win,” Haith said.
Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.