Missouri’s matchup with South Carolina was in hand days in advance of Saturday’s game.
The Gamecocks (7-12, 0-6 SEC) were a blip on the Tigers’ Southeastern Conference radar. Dynamos No. 14 Kentucky, No. 6 Florida and rival Ole Miss lurk around the proverbial corner of Mizzou’s schedule: a road test at Arkansas on Tuesday.
After that, Missouri (15-4, 3-3 SEC) hits the back stretch of its 2014 campaign, one trending for the oblivion of another early NCAA tournament exit — or no berth at all. A loss to the Gamecocks would have shattered a limb of the Tigers mid-stride. A win, the much-expected outcome, would prove inconsequential.
But Saturday, in front of 12,033 at Mizzou Arena, Missouri’s hooves pounded the turn nearing the season’s straightaway and raced ahead of South Carolina like a thoroughbred past a standard. The Tigers led 11-0 before the Gamecocks scored a basket. Finally, the game, which at times felt like a rout, ended: 82-74.
“We haven’t played our best basketball yet,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said.
The Tigers never trailed.
Junior guard Jabari Brown, coming off three straight 20-point performances, scored a team-high 24 points on 7-of-13 shooting, and junior guard Jordan Clarkson added 22 more.
The two guards, plus senior swingman Earnest Ross, ran the floor with ease against the Gamecocks’ lackadaisical defense, combining for 26 of the Tigers’ 38 points at the half.
“When you got a 6-foot-5 point guard who’s so explosive getting the ball in the paint, it pressures your defense,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said of Clarkson. “He takes that ball and he attacks that paint and if he sees help, his passes to Brown and Ross are clean.”
Ross’ 3-pointer opened the game’s scoring. Brown’s second-half crossover and lay-in gave Mizzou an 18-point lead, two points off its largest of the night, and sent the “white-out” home crowd into a frenzy.
Clarkson’s behind-the-back pass to sophomore forward Ryan Rosburg for a resounding dunk in transition provided the highlight of the afternoon.
It was contributions from Missouri’s forwards — freshman Johnathan Williams III and Rosburg — that flung Missouri out of the gates. Williams scored four of the Tigers’ points on that opening run. Rosburg finished at the rim after a pick-and-roll.
The two combined for 16 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. Missouri scored 34 points in the paint. It was the first time in conference play the Tigers swept an opponent in those three categories.
“We’ll take that most nights out of both those guys,” Haith said.
After some first-half difficulties, Brown exploded for 17 points in the second half and racked up a career-high six assists on the game. Missouri recorded a season-high 18 assists as a team on 26 field goals.
Guard Brenton Williams scored a game-high 32 points for South Carolina. His layup spurred a 12-2 run late in the second half that whittled the MU lead down to seven. Last year, Williams scored a team-high 16 points in Missouri’s 71-65 victory over the Gamecocks on Jan. 22, 2013 at Mizzou Arena.
“He’s unconscious shooting the ball,” Clarkson said.
Martin said his team will take that late run, along the with the play of young forwards Michael Carrera and Sindarius Thornwell, in stride as the South Carolina program continues to rebuild from near irrelevancy. It’s last NCAA tournament appearance came in 2004.
Martin said he won’t leave Columbia unhappy with USC’s performance. The wins don’t matter with this group, he said, more than game experience and improvement.
“My focus has to be and our staff’s focus has to be, every single day on continuing to build our culture,” he said. “You can’t worry about your second story if your foundation is not the right way.”
But for Missouri, its next few matches will come against program’s steeped in basketball culture and history. Florida, Kentucky and Ole Miss line the medal stand in the SEC standings. MU only plays each of them once.
“I always want to play against the teams the media says are the best teams in the league, so I’m looking forward to challenging them and showing what we can do,” Brown said. “I love playing against the best, or quote-unquote, the best.”