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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Tigers close out Gamecocks for bounce back win

The Tigers came back after being down 13 points to win 71-65.

Though Missouri’s 71-65 win may not have played out perfectly, the No. 22 Tigers (14-4, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) were able to end it on script.

After battling back from a 13-point deficit to South Carolina (11-7, 1-4 SEC), Missouri finally snagged a lead in a game in that saw 12 ties and 10 lead changes.

With 20.4 seconds left, junior guard Phil Pressey drove and kicked a pass out to junior guard Earnest Ross, who found a wide open sophomore guard Jabari Brown in the corner for three, giving Missouri a four-point lead.

The whole sequence, just what coach Frank Haith drew up after the Tigers’ last timeout, left only 14 seconds on the clock and secured the team’s third conference win.

“I told those guys, ‘Drive the ball and if you have an open clean look, take it,’” Haith said, “And both those guys were confident and knocked down those jump shots.”

After going to the half up eight, the Gamecocks stretched their lead to 13 in the second half before the Tigers launched a 21-2 run to reclaim their first lead since 4:35 in the first half.

Brown had nine points in that span and senior forward Alex Oriakhi added six more. Ross, who led all scorers on the night with 21 points even while playing with a brace on his back, had three points to start to the run.

“We went into a three, four minute stretch where we had an open look and missed it. We took a bad shot, turned it over and then it’s a jailbreak,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said.

In his first time returning to Columbia after leaving Kansas State, once an opponent of Missouri in the Big 12 Conference, Martin likened this loss to one in his first season at KSU when the Wildcats carried a 15-point lead into halftime only to surrender it the Tigers in a boisterous Mizzou Arena.

“It’s unbelievable, just in this building how fast — different people, different coach — but still how fast they come at you when you make a mistake offensively,” he said.

The Gamecocks responded with a quick 9-2 run to retake a three-point lead, but an Oriakhi dunk plus two free throws swung the advantage back to the Tigers.

With just under three minutes left, a Lakeem Jackson jumper tied the game at 61, but strong Missouri defense held South Carolina to just five shots past that point. USC’s last field goal, a layup by Bruce Ellington to give the Gamecocks a two-point lead, came with 2:25 remaining.

From there, Ross hit two foul shots, then a triple at the top of the key. Brenton Williams cut the MU lead to one with a pair of free throws, but after Haith’s timeout, Ross found Brown in the corner for a dagger of a three. The Tigers shot just 5-of-27 from three on the game.

“Coach Haith came in and gave us a great speech (at half time),” Ross said, who later credited the win to the 2012 national coach of year’s pep talk. “And that intensity that he brought to our team not only gave him trust in us, we had to make sure we trusted him.”

The win was a welcome bounce-back from the 83-52 beat down Missouri suffered at Florida on Saturday and from a CBS Sports report of pending NCAA violations committed by Haith during his tenure at Miami.

“It’s been a tough 20, 18, 19 months, but it’s a blessing that it is coming close to the end,” Haith said. “That’s the way I feel personally. Obviously I can’t say a whole lot about what’s going on because, contrary to what’s been reported, there’s been no letter written to Frank Haith or my attorneys haven’t received a letter of any allegations. Until that happens, then I can respond, but as of right now, there’s nothing our way. I do feel and know that we’re getting close to the end and that’s what’s exciting to me.”

Haith said that his team would not be affected by the accusations this season.

“As I told our team: adversity. You’ve got to be able to handle whatever’s going on off the court,” Haith said. “When you get that opportunity to do what you do — and I have the opportunity to coach young men — I’m going to do my very best.”

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