ATLANTA — The gold stripe down the middle of Georgia Dome held its collective breath. Frank Haith, already prowling the bench on one knee, stuck a hand to the ground to keep his balance. The other wiped his forehead.
In the midst of Missouri’s double-overtime battle with Texas A&M in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Jordan Clarkson was headed to the bench for one last time. Jabari Brown was there to greet him.
The Tigers’ duo of junior guards, the team’s leading scorers and ball handlers, were banished with fouls and Haith turned to seldom used freshman guard Shane Rector to replace them.
Mizzou (22-10, 9-9 SEC) held on to take down the Aggies (17-15, 8-10 SEC) in large part due to contributions from first-years.
Forward Johnathan Williams III has started every game for the Tigers this season and scored 11 points and hauled in 15 rebounds in 43 minutes. He was the only player to record a double-double in the game.
Guard Wes Clark scored five points and played both on and off the ball when Clarkson and Brown had to sit out with fouls. He played the entirety of the second overtime.
But Rector, the hero du jour, came up with two steals and made three free throws in the game’s final four minutes. It was his first action in two games.
“Shane Rector, he sits for 45 minutes and goes in the game and has two steals and makes two free throws,” Haith said. “Great contribution by everybody and that was a great team win.”
As Rector returned to the bench during a timeout, assistant coach Mark Phelps jumped off his chair to give him a high five. Freshman forward Torren Jones palmed the top of Rector’s head and shook it with a playful scream. Haith bellowed, “Nice, Shane!” loud enough for the complete lower bowl to hear.
The Tigers celebrated.
A dejected Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy was more blunt.
“Jabari and those guys are good, but those other guys can play, too,” he said. “They were playing, their backups were playing against our backups, and their backups were better, their young guys were better.”
The Tigers posted 18 bench points and 14 rebounds off the bench. Jones had nine boards in 12 minutes of action as Missouri scored 30 second-chance points.
“I thought that was the difference in the game,” Haith said. “Our second chance points and our ability to get second shots for our guys.”
Williams in particular was dominant in the second half when his hustle plays took over the game. He careened into press row to save a ball from going out of bounds and deftly flipped it to Brown, who drove in the lane and got fouled.
When Brown hit the second shot, he grabbed another offensive board in the corner.
In the second overtime, senior guard Earnest Ross missed a free throw that gave the Aggies an opening to bust Mizzou’s lead, but Williams wrangled the ball free and had not one, but two attempts at a layup. He missed his first attempt, but (in typical Williams fashion) grabbed his own rebound and put it back.
“The Williams kid had a heck of a game,” Kennedy said. “He really killed us on the glass. That was the big play, the offensive rebound on the missed free throw that cost us.”
As the lone freshman starter, Williams has taken a leadership role among underclassmen. He said that before big games, the freshmen will talk about what the class of 2017 to help the Tigers’ cause.
“Keep believing in spite of what’s going to happen during the game,” he said. “Just gotta keep believing that we know we’re gonna win. Stay together and stick together throughout the hardship in the game.”
With the win, No. 8 seed Missouri will play No. 1 seed Florida in the quarterfinals. A win would greatly boost Mizzou’s chances at an NCAA tournament berth, the odds of which currently stand close to nil after some damaging late-season losses.
Williams said those aspirations are what drove his game.
“I just came out with a mindset that I wanted to make the tournament as a freshman,” he said.