In the sporting world, the two-minute warning usually means more to television broadcasters than athletes.
The look on every Missouri basketball player’s face with a little more than two minutes left in the first-round game of the Big 12 Conference Tournament on Thursday meant everything.
Missouri had everything to lose, and its haphazard game showed bare all the mental strings attached to playing a 7-20 team in the conference tournament.
When the Aggies pulled within 69-66 with a layup from Nick Anderson at the 1:45 mark, the Tigers’ expressions soured.
“They were chewing on each other; they were passionate about the game,” coach Quin Snyder said. “But it wasn’t the kind of emotion we needed.”
The Tigers exorcised their free-throw shooting demons and held on to their lead from the foul line to get Snyder his 100th victory at Missouri.
After finally finding their footing before halftime, the Tigers struggled to keep their balance the rest of the game.
The Tigers led 38-33 at the break, then jumped to their biggest lead of the game, 45-37, but careless fouls and fumbles helped the Aggies stay close.
After quick fouls from Rickey Paulding and Travon Bryant, the Aggies’ Kevin Turner drilled back-to-back 3-pointers to tie the game at 51 with 8:42 left. After a Paulding miss, the Aggies’ Antoine Wright sank two of his 22 points to give his team the lead.
The season’s end flashed before the Tigers’ eyes, and they didn’t lose the lead again.
The Tigers (16-12) scraped past the Aggies, but they cannot afford the same costly mistakes in tonight’s second round. Less than a week after losing a 84-82 heartbreaker to Kansas at Hearnes Center, the Tigers meet KU, the No. 3 seed, at 8:20 p.m.
The Aggies (7-21) played like a team that had been stripped of everything but its confidence. After losing 16 straight conference games, the Aggies nearly pulled off the upset of their season.
When the Tigers’ lead slipped, they remembered what kept them in reach of Kansas on Sunday: inside presence.
Senior big men Bryant and Arthur Johnson pounded the ball inside to reclaim the lead. They scored 20 of the Tigers first-half points. Bryant led the Tigers’ offense with 16, and Johnson added 14.
Ugly game, sweet result
Despite the game’s ugliness, the Tigers shot a conference tournament-record 60 percent. Snyder said his squad’s improved passing gave it better looks. It made 27-of-45, including eight 3-pointers.
“We were really efficient tonight, except for our turnovers,” Snyder said. “We’ve become a much better passing team. Even our post players have gotten better.”
The Tigers shared the ball so much, though, they started distributing it to opponents.
Even though they had 18 assists, the Tigers turned the ball over 17 times, enough to put the Aggies in business. The Aggies capitalized off Missouri’s turnovers for 17 points.
Despite a strong frontcourt force, the Tigers struggled to hold their rebounding ground on offense.
The Tigers outrebounded the Aggies 23-16 on defense but pulled down three offensive rebounds.
In the first half, Missouri grabbed one offensive rebound and had its only putback points of the half, but Bryant or Johnson could not muscle down that ball. Paulding grabbed that one, after a 3-point miss from freshman Thomas Gardner.
After the Tigers jumped to an early lead, the Wright moved the Aggies’ offensive attack outside for a 10-2 run.
Bombarding Missouri’s weak perimeter defense, Wright sank his sixth field goal, a 3-pointer from the left wing, and capped the Aggies’ surge at a 20-11 lead.
Wright scored 14 of the Aggies’ first 18 points. The Aggies’ leading scorer, Wright made five field goals in the teams’ first meeting, which the Aggies lost 82-77 on Jan. 10. He didn’t score again in the first half.