For coach Frank Haith, Missouri’s struggles on the road in the Southeastern Conference have defined his team’s season. Lately, however, a new issue has begun to hurt the team: the ability to close out games.
During media day on Monday, Haith stressed that the team needs to get off to a good start on the road while still playing a full game to hold onto the win. He avoided placing blame on any particular player, instead opting to point out where the Tigers need to improve as the regular season winds down.
“We just gotta make plays, gotta make free throws,” Haith said. “We can’t turn the ball over. Execution-wise, we gotta get better.”
Earlier in the season the Tigers managed to sneak past opponents even when they didn’t play their best at the end of games. In the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in November, Missouri was able to win 68-65 against VCU and held on in their last non-conference home game against Bucknell on Jan. 5 by a score of 66-64.
As of late however, the trend hasn’t been in the team’s favor.
In a span of a little over two weeks, the Tigers have lost three times due to late-game collapses against Louisiana State, Texas A&M and Arkansas. All three of those games came on the road, where Missouri has a record of 1-6 in the SEC. During that span, the team has dropped out of the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since the 2010-2011 season and seen its possible seed in the NCAA tournament continue to fall.
“We just gotta make better decisions and make sure we’re getting to the line and getting good shots,” Haith said. “There is no doubt that game on Saturday was a tough loss for everybody. We had that game in hand and it just slipped away. You just gotta get through it.”
Against Arkansas on Saturday, Missouri jumped out to a 9-0 lead and later lost the game 71-73 after taking a lead into the final 30 seconds. The game, the Tigers' first against former coach Mike Anderson, dropped Missouri to 18-7 on the season. Earlier in the season, forward Alex Oriakhi said the Tigers’ biggest problem was coming out of the gate with energy on the road. Going into Missouri’s final six regular season, the senior big man who previously won a National Championship with the University of Connecticut said late-game losses are tough to handle, with the loss to Arkansas being especially tough.
“They all hurt but that one, I thought we were going to walk away with a win,” Oriakhi said. “I think that one definitely hurt the most.”
While this is the first season most of the team has played together — junior guard Phil Pressey being the lone Tiger who played for Haith before this season — senior Laurence Bowers is familiar with struggling late in games. As a junior playing for Anderson during the 2010-2011 season, Bowers experienced Missouri losing close games late to Georgetown and Texas A&M.
“Any loss is tough to get over,” Bowers said. “Especially those where you have an opportunity to win the game, so Saturday’s loss really hurt, but it’s a new day.”
With six games left in the season and the team’s most difficult home game of the season coming on Tuesday against No. 5 Florida, Haith stressed that his players and coaching staff need to just worry about the game in front of them.
“We have to flip the script and stay in the present,” Haith said. “Can’t worry about the past because you can’t do anything about it other than to use it for reference to get better.”