Tigers ride defense past Alabama

Man and zone schemes yield coach Haith’s approval.

Freshman forward Jonathan Williams III, left, and junior guard Jordan Clarkson, right, jump in an attempt to block Malcolm Hill of Illinois on Dec. 21 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. The Tigers’ defense held Alabama to 29.2-percent shooting Saturday. Maneater File Photo

At first glance, the number seems like a mistake. Seventeen point four. Then again, so does freshman forward Johnathan Williams III switching a screen on the perimeter or running a shooter off the 3-point line.

But no, neither 17.4 — Alabama’s second half field goal percentage against Missouri on Saturday — nor Williams’ shapeshifting on the arc are mistakes. They’re marks of defensive success.

Coach Frank Haith said his team’s 68-47 win over the Crimson Tide was the Tigers’ most stout performance of the year.

“I thought defensively we were outstanding,” he said afterward.

No kidding.

Alabama shot 29.2 percent on the game, the lowest shooting percentage allowed by the Tigers (14-4, 2-3 SEC) all year. UA's 47 points were the fewest allowed this season as well.

A combination of Missouri's rugged man-to-man defense and its regnant 3-2 zone kept the Tide and leading scorer Trevor Releford at bay.

When forwards Shannon Hale and Carl Engstrom set screens on defenders Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown in man-to-man sets, Williams and sophomore forward Ryan Rosburg stepped out to switch.

When dribble penetration from UA's Levi Randolph agitated the middle of the Missouri zone, Williams and company stepped up to meet him, then sprinted to the perimeter to chase away shooters, seemingly shooing away birds from the Tigers’ picnic.

“The back line of our zone, and Johnathan Williams III, was just terrific,” Haith said. “We had great closeouts, and I thought our team’s defense was outstanding on Releford, knowing where he is at and how good of a player he is. I thought our guys did a really good job on him.”

Missouri’s length and athleticism allowed the Tigers to defend anywhere on the court at all positions.

Williams, standing 6 feet 9 inches, dogged ball handlers as they drove the basket, an area in which he struggled during Missouri's overtime loss at Vanderbilt two days prior. Kyle Fuller’s step-back jumper over Williams to pump Vandy’s lead to seven with a minute to play had put the game in hand for the Commodores.

Clarkson’s length in particular caused problems for Alabama. Seven of Alabama guard Randolph’s 10 points came in the first half while Clarkson was benched with foul trouble.

In the second half, Randolph scored three points.

“Just trying to play passing lanes to keep pressure on the ball … and make them uncomfortable,” Clarkson said.

But Tuesday, four players from Louisiana State scored in double figures and shot 44.1 percent on the game.

Forward Johnny O’Bryant III irked the interior of Mizzou’s back line. Forward Shavon Coleman rained in buckets from all over the floor. LSU beat Missouri on the boards by a five-rebound margin and Missouri racked up a single block, while Louisiana State turned in a whopping nine.

It’s proof that the Tigers’ performance against Alabama may be progress, but leaps and bounds from consistency, especially away from the friendly confines of Mizzou Arena, where Missouri has all but one of its wins.

Continuing that former defensive intensity will be crucial as the Tigers gear up for their toughest stretch of conference play. Missouri will play Arkansas, Kentucky, Florida and Ole Miss after conference bottom-feeder South Carolina this coming Saturday.

Haith said the ability to defend in multiple sets will help his Tigers survive that span.

“I think our guys are understanding (that) to be able to do both makes us a better team,” Haith said.

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