Unlike the blowouts that have come to define Missouri’s listless season, the Tigers began March with something different on Tuesday: a suspenseful finish.
Mizzou fell behind by 14 points at South Carolina but kept things close enough to create some rare drama in the final minutes at Colonial Life Arena. But the outcome was nothing new.
The Tigers got within a point of the lead with 1:34 left, but South Carolina did just enough from there to close out a 73-69 victory and extend MU’s losing streak to six, the longest of coach Cuonzo Martin’s five seasons.
“I thought we did a good job to maintain our competitive spirit to give ourselves a chance to win,” Martin said.
But the Tigers are nearly out of chances to finish a lost season on a positive note. In the second-to-last game of the regular season, Mizzou fell to 10-20 and 4-13 in the Southeastern Conference. It’s just the sixth 20-loss season in Mizzou history. Three of the previous five came under Martin’s predecessor, Kim Anderson, who announced his retirement Tuesday after five years at Division II Pittsburg State.
After losing to Mizzou twice last season, South Carolina’s Frank Martin didn’t take Tuesday’s win for granted.
“Hats off to Cuonzo,” said Martin, whose Gamecocks moved to 18-11 and 9-8 in the SEC. “He’s become one of the guys I respect the most in this business. After the year they’ve had from an injury standpoint to keep those kids playing as hard as they play and as good as they are defensively created major problems for us today. We couldn’t run any offense. But somehow, someway we figured out a way to win the game and that’s what counts.”
Already locked into either the 12 or 13 seed in next week’s SEC tournament, the Tigers host last-place Georgia in Saturday’s regular-season finale.
Javon Pickett was Mizzou’s best offensive threat again, finishing with a career-high 23 points. Kobe Brown emerged from his scoring slump with 19 points, including the Tigers’ final nine points as they scrambled to keep pace late.
For the first time in his last 40 games, Brown didn’t have a field goal in Saturday’s loss at Louisiana State, prompting a challenge from his head coach.
“Just from the standpoint of, ‘Come on, man. You’re a high-level talent,’” MU’s Martin recalled Tuesday. “‘Guys can’t knock the ball out of your hands. If they’re knocking the ball out, there should be blood somewhere. That can’t happen as physical as you are, as strong as you are, as a guy that gets downhill to make plays. Those things can’t happen, especially when you’ve got 70-plus starts at this level.’”
Brown and Pickett carried the Tigers’ comeback on their shoulders late Tuesday as Brown scored on three straight possessions in the final minute. But down five with five seconds left, the junior forward turned it over with an errant pass to all but preserve the Gamecock victory. Two early fouls limited Brown to just seven minutes in the first half.
“I have to come out and give more to the team early on,” he said.
On Monday, South Carolina’s Martin noted that Mizzou can be difficult to beat in low-scoring games, which he described as “grinders.” That’s a nice way of describing a first half that featured as much offensive efficiency as a halfcourt shooting contest. The opening 20 minutes were clunky all the way around, featuring 14 combined turnovers, 19 fouls and 12 missed layups and dunks.
“It was a rock fight,” USC’s Martin said.
The Tigers didn’t connect on their first field goal until a Trevon Brazile dunk after the first media timeout and for the half shot just 3 of 10 on layups and just 32% overall — while turning the ball over nine times.
South Carolina pulled ahead 23-15 with a 10-1 run midway through the half, powered by a stretch of jumpers from Jermaine Cousinard. Down nine in the final seconds, Mizzou called a timeout to set up one last possession and beat the buzzer with a Pickett 3-pointer, trimming USC’s halftime lead to 30-24.
In the second half, the Tigers clawed back within four points with a 7-0 run as the Gamecocks missed six straight shots from the field. Brazile ignited a rare transition chance for the Tigers when he slipped on the court but still managed to intercept a pass into the paint and fired a pass to Amari Davis for a layup. A couple trips to the foul line whittled South Carolina’s lead to three in the closing minutes. A Pickett drive, followed by two more free throws made it a one-point deficit with 1:34 left.
Devin Carter answered with a three-point play for a 63-59 lead, but with a chance to inch closer, the Tigers worked the ball in to Brown, but he dribbled off his foot along the baseline. The rally sputtered from there.
Dave Matter brings you the latest updates from the Mizzou sports scene.