MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Different day, same rotten first half and spoiled finish for the No. 11 Missouri basketball team.
Four days after losing to No. 17 Illinois by one, the Tigers fell short against Memphis, losing 61-59 on Saturday at The Pyramid.
Even though the loss and halftime gap looked like a replay from Tuesday’s 71-70 loss to Illinois, Missouri coach Quin Snyder said MU struggled from the other end of the court.
Instead of watching its opponents break through every defensive stand, Missouri struggled to muster any offense.
MU (4-3) ground through an early 15-point deficit, but a second-half surge didn’t make up for a sloppy start on offense.
“I wouldn’t think the switch got flipped too late tonight,” Snyder said. “I think the switch was on from the beginning.
“We didn’t do every thing we needed to do tonight to win, but we did a lot of things better than we have done in the last few games.”
With three minutes left, Missouri point guard Jimmy McKinney sank a 3-point shot to pull the Tigers within 54-53. His basket capped a 9-2 Missouri run.
On the next Memphis possession, Missouri center Arthur Johnson picked up his fifth foul reaching over Ivan Lopez for a rebound. Lopez sank both free throws and spread his team’s lead back to 56-53.
With 49 seconds left, McKinney tossed up a layup as he fell, and Missouri pulled to 58-55.
On the ensuing possession, Memphis (7-2) didn’t attempt a shot before the shot clock expired.
A series of Missouri fouls gave Memphis plenty of opportunities to close the game from the foul line. Memphis’ 3-of-6 free-throw shooting in the last 20 seconds gave Missouri enough room for last-chance shots from Rickey Paulding and McKinney.
Paulding hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to cut the Memphis lead to 60-59, but Missouri needed more than four seconds for another clear shot.
When McKinney’s desperation shot skidded off the backboard as time expired, Missouri’s effort came too late.
Johnson led the MU offense with 14 points and 12 rebounds. Paulding and Travon Bryant added 13 points, and McKinney scored 11.
“It’s not like we’ve gotten run out of the building,” Snyder said. “We’ve had opportunities to win all three games we’ve lost against high-quality teams.”
Memphis led 35-26 at the half, but Missouri’s shooting percentage was its only first-half weakness. The Tigers made 9-of-37 shots in the first 20 minutes.
Even though the shots weren’t falling, Missouri’s defense kept it in reach. After costly defensive lapses in the team’s losses to Gonzaga and Illinois, Snyder said Missouri guarded the ball consistently for the first time.
“Sometimes when you don’t see the ball go in, you can get discouraged defensively,” Snyder said. “We stayed together.”
Memphis built a 20-5 run in the first half with a perimeter-shooting barrage. Rodney Carney hit three 3-pointers during the run, and Jeremy Hunt added one.
In the second half, Missouri stepped up its exterior defense and held Memphis scoreless on 12 attempts from 3-point range.
Missouri fell short for its second straight loss, but it didn’t shake Snyder.
He said winning on a miracle shot from half court would not have helped his team overcome its weaknesses in Big 12 Conference play or in any postseason competition.
“Sometimes, if you win some of these, you get a false sense,” Snyder said. “Maybe we hit a shot here or we hit a shot there and we win. We’re still the same team. We still have the same weaknesses we need to focus on.”
The first half Saturday gave Snyder a clearer picture of what his team is best at: rebounding.
Missouri outrebounded Memphis 49-35. In the first 20 minutes, Missouri pulled in 17 offensive rebounds.
Memphis coach John Calipari said Missouri’s rebounding kept it in the first half.
“They’re so physically big that they throw bodies at you and they send four guys to the glass,” Calipari said. “Even if they take a tough shot, they just go throw people around.”
Unfortunately for Missouri, its offensive rebounds didn’t generate many second-chance points. Missouri missed 20 shots under the basket in the first half.
Missouri calmed other recurrent weaknesses, taking care of the ball and playing solidly in transition. Missouri had only five first-half turnovers.
“We’re playing the right way,” Snyder said. “We just didn’t get rewarded on the offensive end for playing that way.
It would be easy to look at three losses as a discouraging start for the season, but the feeling around Missouri’s locker room wasn’t dismal, depressing or even upsetting.
Snyder said he expected those trials with the caliber teams Missouri’s schedule included.
“We could be 7-0 and sitting pretty, and everybody would be happy with where we are, but we’re not,” Snyder said. “What we have to do is look at ourselves and see where we can get better.”
After seven games, McKinney said the Tigers’ identity crisis is closer to being solved.
“We’re going through a little drought right now to find out who we are,” McKinney said. “I think every great team goes through a situation like this. The ones that succeed are the ones that stick together and fight through it.”
Bryant said Missouri’s defense played better Saturday than against Illinois. Bryant said the Tigers’ challenge is to execute on both ends of the court.
“Collectively, we’ve got to just put it together for 40 minutes,” Bryant said. “We’ve got to know that we’re going to take team’s best shots. Once we know that, we’re going to have a better understanding of who we want to be.”