In the beginning there was no one. At the end there was Earnest Ross.
When Frank Haith was named Missouri’s head basketball coach in 2011, his reign began with 11 roster spots to fill in the next two years. He turned to transfers and Ross, then a sophomore guard at Auburn, was the first to sign on.
Wednesday, Ross played his final game at Mizzou Arena — a thrilling 57-56 Senior Night win over Texas A&M. In the beginning, when the Tigers (21-9, 9-8 Southeastern Conference) mustered just 20 first half points, Ross shot 0-for-5 from the field.
“He was struggling for 35 minutes,” Haith said. “But he had a great five-minute stretch.”
In that final stretch, when Missouri clawed the Aggie lead down from 11 to three, Ross scored all seven of his points and added two crucial steals and a rebound. His layup with 16 seconds left cut the Aggie lead to one. Then a pair of free throws with 7 seconds to play gave Mizzou its first and only lead of the game.
“I went out there and just tried to win the game and do it in any possible way, whether it was rebounding, defending the best player or knocking down some free throws,” Ross said. “As long as we win, that’s all I care about.”
Six times in the second half Missouri chopped A&M’s lead to four points and five times the Aggies (17-13, 8-9 SEC) rose to the action. The final attempt, Ross’ first point of the game on a free throw with 1:06 to play, finally broke the spell.
He poured in another two foul shots after jumping a passing lane 14 seconds later. Jamal Jones, who led A&M with 16 points, hit a bankshot to push the margin back to three, but the very next possession, Ross spun in a layup in response.
Jones missed the front half of a one-and-one with 8 seconds to play and as Ross grabbed the rebound, he was fouled in the process. The ensuing shots gave Mizzou the lead and Ross’ steal of the Aggies’ inbounds pass with 2.2 seconds to play sealed the win.
“It was some tense moments for sure,” Haith said.
The final 16 seconds of the game, which featured two official reviews, took 16 minutes. After Ross’ steal, officials again went back to the monitor to see if he had stepped out of bounds. Unable to find conclusive evidence, they called the game.
“He stepped out of bounds,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “We saw him step out of bounds. They just said they couldn’t clarify it exactly. Once they made the call they couldn’t go back and change it unless it was totally something that they could see.”
Moments earlier, it seemed as though freshman guard Wes Clark had stolen a different pass, but officials ruled the ball went off junior guard Jordan Clarkson.
“The officials told me, ‘It was so, so close and we want to make sure we get it right,’” Haith said. “It was too close to overturn in their view.”
Junior guard Jabari Brown led all scorers with 20 points and Clarkson chipped in 14 more, but it was Missouri’s underclassmen that sustained it during the intervening period.
Freshman forward Johnathan Williams III scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds. Classmate Torren Jones scored five points and pulled down four boards in 13 minutes. Clark dished three assists in 18 minutes.
“I think all the freshmen gave us great, great excitement today,” Ross said. “Those are great future Tigers for Mizzou basketball. As long as they continue to keep playing the way they’re playing, I think we’re going to have a great chance at the NCAA tournament.”
Ross said Tuesday he joined the Tigers to play for a team capable of playing the postseason. The climactic win a day later may have kept that dream alive. A loss would have damned the Tigers in RPI rankings and saddled them with an even conference record at best.
At the end of the night, the parallels of Ross’ game and Senior Night shined through. He sat on the bench his first season at Missouri as a transfer. He was absent when the Tigers fell to Norfolk State in one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history. He was Haith’s sixth man a year ago. Finally, Ross seized his moment in the final minute of his time at Mizzou Arena.
When in the first half he was seldom heard from, his production silenced, he was the last man to leave Norm Stewart Court after his thunderous finish and impassioned address to Tiger backers over the public address system.
In the beginning there was no one. At the end stood Earnest Ross.