Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Wes Clark had a solid statline against Arkansas on Saturday. He scored eight points, four of which came unanswered in a crucial second-half stretch. He had six assists and five rebounds, and his team can live with his two turnovers against a heavy-pressing Razorbacks defense.
The stat he’d like to change: 2-of-4 from the free throw line. If Clark hadn’t missed two missed free throws with his team down one with 3.3 seconds to play, the Tigers might not have suffered their fifth consecutive loss.
Missouri coach Kim Anderson emphasized after the game Clark did not lose it for the Tigers, and the first-year coach reiterated the point numerous times Tuesday.
“I really feel terribly about it,” Anderson said. “Because he’s the guy that got us there to be honest with you.”
Clark wasn’t the only reason the Tigers fell a point short. Montaque Gill-Caesar hit a long jumper with his foot on the line to score two points instead of three on Missouri’s last made shot, and D’Angelo Allen missed a makeable put-back attempt on the ensuing possession — just to name a few of the countless times one point is given or taken in any college basketball game.
And Clark wasn’t the only reason Missouri was in the game, either. The ending likely wouldn’t have been so exciting if not for Gill-Caesar’s 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting or Johnathan Williams III’s 10 rebounds and 15 points on 7-of-15 shooting. Though Clark had the hot hand late, he finished just 3-of-11 overall from the field.
Still, the sophomore guard’s biggest effect might not have been on his own stat sheet. Clark, who was not made available to media Tuesday, had the unenviable task of guarding Arkansas junior Michael Qualls, who entered the game as the Southeastern Conference’s third-leading scorer coming off a 30-point performance at Alabama.
Though the 6-foot-1 Clark was outsized by the 6-foot-6 Qualls, Anderson felt Clark’s experience and strength made him the man for the job.
“I think Wes is one of our better defenders,” Anderson said. “… When we’re sitting there and we’re talking about who’s going to guard this guy, who’s going to guard this guy, Wes is the guy that usually guards the best guard.”
The decision paid off. Clark, who wasn’t charged with a single foul, held Qualls to eight points on a 3-of-15 shooting performance.
“I really think he comes every day to play, and he plays hard,” Anderson said of Clark. “He’s one of those guys that I think has kind of risen his game as far as an intensity level, knowing how hard he has to play, and that’s a sign of maturity.”
As Williams pointed out, Clark was the one who got to the free-throw line in the first place. Clark drove the baseline after Missouri inbounded with 5.3 seconds left to draw a foul and give Missouri a chance to take the lead.
“Like Michael Jordan said, he missed over a thousand shots, missed a lot of game-winners, but he was the one who had the confidence to take that shot,” Williams said. “(Clark) was the one who had the confidence to go to the free-throw line. So him having the confidence just to do that and to have the ball in his hands, that’s enough said right there.
“He’s only 19 years old. He had to courage to take the last shot, so people need to start seeing that instead of ‘Oh, he missed two free throws.’ He had the courage to put the ball in his hand and make the big plays.”
Clark was visibly distraught after the game. Fellow guard Keith Shamburger, Clark’s roommate, said the two went home and took a nap after the game. When they awoke, they discussed the tough loss.
“He told me he was sorry for missing it, but you can’t really take that back. You can’t say sorry, because it’s just something — sometimes you make ‘em, sometimes you miss ‘em,” Shamburger said. “I know he wanted to make those bad, and I know how bad he really wanted to win that game, so I mean you can’t be mad at him for missing them. He put his everything he had on those two shots, and, too bad, the basketball gods just wanted a different outcome.”
Shamburger, a senior transfer, said it’s important to remember Clark, like most of the team’s core, is just an underclassman.
“Wes is still a sophomore, and I’m pretty sure he’ll get another chance at the line when there’s two seconds left and he’s down by one, and he’ll know exactly what to do this time,” Shamburger said. “He’s a sophomore, and that pressure can bust you sometimes. He’ll have another time when he can be the man of that night and win the game for his team and I’m pretty sure next time he’ll make both of those free throws.”
Thursday, Clark returns to the court for the first time when the Tigers host Kentucky, which defeated Missouri 86-37 two weeks ago.
Shamburger and Williams said they have encouraged Clark in the aftermath of the Arkansas loss and that he has moved on well, putting in extra work in the few days since. Anderson said Clark performed well in practice on Monday.
“I’m sure Saturday night, Sunday were tough on him, but I think he’ll move on. I do,” Anderson said. “I think that people have been very supportive, and certainly our team’s been very supportive, and we’re all behind him. We’re thankful he put us in that position.”