SACRAMENTO, Calif. — With only a small, albeit still loud, percentage of its fans in attendance for its Round of 64 NCAA Tournament game Thursday, Missouri’s bench had to engineer its own chants of “Defense.”
With 4:01 left, Nick Honor picked Sean Bairstow’s pocket. He raced down the court to find D’Moi Hodge for a 3 that gave the Tigers a 67-56 lead.
The sequence helped put the Tigers’ lead out of reach and seal Missouri’s first win in the NCAA Tournament since 2010. Missouri defeated Utah State 76-65 at the Golden 1 Center to advance to the Round of 32.
The Tigers will face No. 15-seeded Princeton, which upset Arizona 59-55 on Saturday in Sacramento, for a spot in the Sweet 16.
While MU managed to pull away in the closing stages of the game, Utah State found answers to Missouri’s defense in the second half, even taking the lead on two occasions.
That’s when Hodge and MU’s best player, Kobe Brown, had enough.
Brown went on a 7-0 run by himself, and Hodge drilled three 3s in the second half and finished with 23 points, four rebounds and four steals. Brown added 19 points and eight boards.
Hodge’s active hands also helped the Tigers force 15 Utah State turnovers, which they turned into 23 points. After picking up two early fouls, Brown kept his composure to stay in the game. He overpowered Utah State on offense and showed off his talent with MU’s season on the line.
“We didn’t blink no matter what the crowd noise was, no matter what the response or the difficulty in the plays that Utah State made,” MU coach Dennis Gates said. “They’re a good team. They were supposed to go on a run, but we’re a good team as well. And we were supposed to respond. And our guys stepped up and responded.”
While Brown and Hodge combined for 28 of MU’s 41 points in the final period, the duo’s supporting cast also chipped in to keep Missouri’s season alive. DeAndre Gholston had 11 points, Noah Carter added 10 along with six rebounds, and Sean East II finished with eight points.
“I think we just found the best shots possible each possession,” Nick Honor said. “I know Kobe and D’Moi, they’ve been doing it all year. For the rest of us, we just found the right shots. Noah Carter played big, Sean East played big, (DeAndre) Gholston played big. We all just kind of found our niche a little bit and did what we do best.”
Defensively, MU also excelled at running the Aggies off the 3-point line, limiting them to just 17% from deep. While the Aggies did generate some decent looks from deep that just didn’t fall, Carter credited MU’s defense in keeping Utah State uncomfortable throughout.
“I think it was definitely our defense,” Carter said. “Pressuring the ball, staying on the line, extending their catches, speeding their game up. I think that was our defensive plan, and I think it worked to perfection.”
While Utah State stayed cold from 3, the Aggies got back in the game through production in the paint. Aggie guard Steven Ashworth constantly slithered his way to the rim or found cutting teammates for dunks. He finished with 12 points, four assists and six rebounds.
When MU eventually found its rhythm scoring, Utah State ramped up its defense in the closing stages of the first half, forcing MU into two separate scoring droughts. The Tigers held a narrow 35-31 advantage at halftime.
The Aggies also forced the Tigers into foul trouble in the first half. Brown’s two first-half fouls helped put Utah State in the bonus with just more than 11 minutes left.
Despite the rough patches, Missouri’s defense helped give it an edge in the opening minutes of the first half and gave the Tigers a cushion for their offense to thrive in the second half. MU forced four turnovers in the first five minutes and communicated well on defense all game to switch between Utah State’s shooters.
One of MU’s more versatile defenders, Tre Gomillion, missed yet another game with an injury. He continues to be listed as day-to-day but was as active as the coaching staff on MU’s sideline, racing up and down to give his input to MU coach Dennis Gates near half court.
“It’s hard for him not to be out there,” Gates said. “Without a doubt, he wants to be side by side with his teammates, and I had to have a real conversation with him in the locker room. And I said, ‘If you’re not playing, I need you involved — and as involved as my staff members.’ And you can see him walking up to me making suggestions. And that’s what I anticipate, and that’s what I expect of him.”
Whether or not Gomillion is a player or a coach Saturday, his dedication to his teammates is obvious. The energy he helped create from the sidelines, along with the Tigers’ execution of the defensive game plan and Brown and Hodge’s refusal to lose, helped will the Tigers to a long-awaited Big Dance win.