Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Missouri basketball team has had a habit of beginning games slowly and finishing them with a burst this season. Thursday, the Tigers decided to give the opposite method a try.
The Tigers led by 19 at the half, but a lackluster performance in the final 20 minutes allowed Colonial Athletic Association opponent Elon to come within one before Missouri hung on for a 78-73 win.
“Probably the best first half that we’ve played all year,” first-year Missouri coach Kim Anderson said. “Watching them play, I knew they’d make a run in the second half, and certainly they made a big run.”
Missouri shot 59 percent from the field in the first half and five players hit 3-pointers as the Tigers hit 6-of-9 from beyond the arc to take command. The Tigers’ 46 first-half points were their most this season, and Elon wasn’t making an upset look likely with its 24.2-percent shooting.
The Tigers had been sluggish at tipoff for most of their previous games under Anderson. Senior guard Keith Shamburger said Anderson switched up the team’s early-game offense, and it paid off Thursday.
“That opened up a lot of opportunities for us early in the game and made the game a little faster,” Shamburger said.
At half, the game had the makings of a blowout in favor of the Tigers, who haven’t won a game by more than 15 points this year.
Freshman D’Angelo Allen said Missouri might have thought it could roll over Elon after the big start, but he could tell the Phoenix were intent on making a comeback when they returned from the visitor’s locker room.
“It’s like their Super Bowl against Missouri, beating a D-I school like us,” Allen said. Elon is, in fact, a Division I school.
Missouri didn’t run away from the Phoenix in the second half, but the Tigers were able to maintain a double-digit cushion until Tanner Samson’s free throw with less than 8:30 to play. A Wes Clark jumper gave Missouri a 70-58 lead with less than 4:30 to kill, but a Samson 3-pointer kickstarted Elan’s most deadly run of the night.
Elon scored 11 straight points within the next 2:21 to cut the lead to 1, thanks in part to two 3-pointers from Luke Eddy. Missouri’s Johnathan Williams III followed the second of Eddy’s treys with two free throws, but Elon’s Kevin Blake responded with a layup, and a Wes Clark foul on the shot gave Elon a chance to tie for the first time since 0-0.
However, with chants of “Choke!” coming from student cheering section The Antlers, Blake clanked the free throw. Williams grabbed the rebound but lost his footing in the shuffle and was called for a travel, much to the crowd’s dismay. Eddy then shorted a jumper that could have taken the lead, and, after two Shamburger free throws, Samson air-balled a 3-point attempt that could have tied it.
The Tigers, who entered the game making just 64 percent of their free throws, sunk four more to ice the Phoenix.
“The bad news is we let them come back, and the good news is we did handle the pressure at the end,” Anderson said.
Missouri was led by Shamburger’s 16 points on 50 percent shooting. Three other Tigers were in double figures — including Allen and his career-high 12 — and six Missouri players knocked down treys.
Allen provided an important 21 minutes off the bench for the Tigers. In one string of second-half possessions, Allen made three consecutive put-back baskets.
For Elon, Eddy led the way with 27 points, 17 of which came in the second half. Elon’s shooting percentage was nearly twice as good in the second half as it was in the first.
“I feel a lot better after the second half than after the first half,” Elon coach Matt Matheny said. “I thought Missouri really knocked us on our heels to start the game, and we played the better part of the first half on our heels, tentative.
“I really am happy with the way our team responded coming out of halftime. It wasn’t like we were gangbusters, but we played on our toes in the second half.”
Missouri’s first nine points of the game came off 3-pointers. The Tigers, who were outscored and outrebounded in the paint, raised their 3-point shooting percentage to 39.6 on the year.
“We struggled inside. We struggled scoring in the paint,” Anderson said. “I really think we have pretty good shooters. If we can get some good shots, I think we’ll knock them down, and we did.”
Missouri (5-4) is back in action at 3 p.m. Saturday against Xavier (7-2) at Mizzou Arena.