Frank Haith finally had his ideal lineup on the court.
It just took him seven games, and three losses, in the Southeastern Conference season to make his vision a reality. For the first time since the team’s Dec. 22 game against Illinois, Missouri had its ideal rotation able to play Saturday, Haith said in his postgame news conference.
The difference maker for Missouri (16-5, 5-3 SEC) early in the game wasn’t one of the starters, however. It was Earnest Ross, who turned in a season-best game against his former team. The junior guard scored 23 off 5-of-6 shooting behind the 3-point line to help the Tigers top Auburn (8-13, 2-6 SEC) 91-77 Saturday at Mizzou Arena.
"I thought we really turned down some good shots for some great shots, and that was good to see,” Haith said. “We have to bottle what we have when we play at home and take it on the road.”
Missouri went into the half with a 10-point lead, bolstered by the play of Ross and senior guard Keion Bell. Ross, who transferred from Auburn after the 2010-2011 season, said he didn’t bring any hard feelings into the game.
“It was kind of a personal thing when I stepped on the floor,” Ross said. “I know most of those guys so it was more of a friendly rivalry, I would say. But most of all just going out there and executing what the coaches asked for us.”
Auburn kept the game close, however, shooting 15 of 16 from the free throw line during the first half, leaving Missouri to rely on its rebounding ability more often as the game went on.
Bell went on to score a season-high 24 points in his return to the starting lineup after missing Wednesday's game against Louisiana State with an injury. Senior center Alex Oriakhi scored 11 points in the game to make it to 1,000 points scored during his college career. The 6’9" forward received a brief standing ovation from fans following a timeout in the second half for the accomplishment.
“When they announced it, it was definitely a great feeling,” Oriakhi said. “When you have your teammates support you, it’s even better. It’s a blessing and I’m happy I’m going to be able to end my career as a Tiger.”
For Auburn, guard Frankie Sullivan led the team with 12 points off 4-of-9 shooting, but the team was able to stay in the game until the second half due to their near-perfect shooting from the charity stripe. Auburn shot a combined 32 of 36 from the free throw line in a game where 51 fouls were called between the two teams.
"I thought in a game like that, we shot 33 free throws and they shot 36 free throws, it was a weird game like that,” Haith said. “I thought our guys handled themselves well.”
With 13 minutes left in the game, Missouri experienced another injury scare, a scene that has become all too common for the team this season. Junior forward Tony Criswell left the game wincing in pain while holding his left hand, the same hand where he had suffered a broken finger earlier this season. He would return later in the game, but the moment was still enough for the coaching staff to take pause.
Bell, who Haith described earlier this week as being one of the team’s better defenders, proved Saturday that he could combine the best of both worlds in terms of his play. In his time at Pepperdine before transferring to Missouri, Bell was an athletic player and a viable scoring threat. So far this season with Missouri, he’s been used primarily as an on-ball defender to help shut down opposing shooters.
Against Auburn, he was able to do both. Bell’s three steals allowed the Oriakhi to run the court and end each sequence with an emphatic slam.
“We want him at the line a lot,” Haith said of Bell. “When those guys are attacking and not avoiding contact, because we are athletic enough, we don't have to go through the defense."