ATLANTA — As Earnest Ross’ senior year winds down at Missouri, the ever-introspective guard saw his transfer three years ago from Auburn as the start of consecutive trips to the postseason.
The move took him to a program where Ross could contribute in other ways than scoring. He led Auburn in that mark as a sophomore when chipped in 13.1 points a game.
But when junior guards Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson left Missouri’s Southeastern Conference Tournament battle with Texas A&M with fouls, it was Ross upon whom the Tigers (22-10, 9-9 SEC) leaned.
“He was terrific even when both those guys fouled out,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said.
Ross scored 24 points, 17 in the first half and three in overtime, to lead No. 8 seed Mizzou past the No. 9 seed Aggies, 91-83, in double overtime.
Missouri will face No. 1 seed Florida at 1 p.m. Friday in the quarterfinals.
The Tigers led by six with 6 minutes to play, but the Aggies (17-15, 8-10 SEC) launched a 9-2 run to take the lead with 3:45 left.
Brown hit two free throws to bring Missouri back from a two-point deficit and led by as many as five in the first overtime with a minute to play.
Fifty seconds later, Kourtney Roberson cut the lead to two with free throws, and Blake McDonald stole the ensuing inbounds pass and dished to Alex Caruso for a layup that tied the game and sent it to a second overtime.
In that extra session, Missouri went on a 10-0 run after trading the opening couple baskets and shot 16 free throws, making 12 of them. Freshman guard Shane Rector, who checked in for Clarkson when he left with fouls, grabbed two steals and two rebounds in the final four minutes and hit three foul shots that put the game out of reach.
Freshman forward Johnathan Williams III had the game’s lone double-double with 11 points and 15 rebounds. Eight of those came on the offensive end. His putback of a Ross missed foul shot in the second overtime was one of the final nails in the Aggies’ coffin.
“The Williams kid had a heck of a game,” Texas A&M coach Billy 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.”
For the second straight year, Missouri drew a matchup with a team it had faced a short time prior. The Tigers last saw the Aggies on March 5 when A&M’s methodical pace of play chafed Mizzou’s high-octane offense.
Thursday, the Tigers embraced that style of half-court play en route to sustaining seven and nine point leads through the bulk of the contest.
“We wanted to take care of the ball on offense and kinda make them guard for a while too,” Brown said. “Even things out and make them defend.”
Ross and Clarkson, Haith’s main ball handlers, did just that, curling around screens and driving the lane. Brown’s mid-range game proved especially troublesome for Texas A&M.
“Jabari Brown made a couple of really tough shots,” Kennedy said. “He has a midrange game. He's a complete guard. I think that was a big difference in the game to have a guy that you can clear out, and he can go one dribble and pull up and shoot the ball.”
But in the second overtime, it was Ross who took on all comers.
He scored the first seven points of the game for Missouri but with the help of Clarkson and Ross, whose ball movement Haith praised.
“We talked about him being ready against their zone,” Haith said. “Particularly early in the game we got good shots.”
At the end of the game, Ross waved off the help that came offensively and drove his broad shoulders through the lane.
“I was trying to win and just be a senior,” Ross said.
And so it’s come full circle for Ross, who left Auburn to share the spotlight and now redons the mantle of leadership for Missouri in the conference tournament.
Friday, he’ll look to lead the Tigers over the Gators, a team Missouri lead by as many as 10 in their regular season meeting.
“I just think it’s a great chance for us to go out there and showcase what we do and how we play,” he said. “That’s just play hard and leave it all on the floor.”