Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Missouri men’s basketball team’s opening possession Tuesday night did not go as planned.
“Completely messed up the first play of the game,” Missouri coach Kim Anderson said. “Completely. Wasn’t even close to what we wanted to do.”
Luckily for Missouri, the play still resulted in points, a Namon Wright jumper as the shot clock expired. It was good omen, apparently, as Missouri began to run plays correctly and went on to win their first game in a month and a half, defeating Florida 64-52.
The win snapped a 13-game losing streak, the longest in school history. After defeating LSU to open Southeastern Conference play, Missouri began the streak with a six-point loss at Auburn on Jan. 8.
“I never lost 13 in a row,” Anderson said after the game. “Not even in pickup. If I lost 13 in a row in pickup, I had a fight before we got to the 14th game.”
Missouri had some close calls during the streak — most notably a one-point loss to Arkansas sealed by two missed free throws — but there were large chunks of the 47-day drought in which the Tigers failed to put up a fight.
Missouri shot 39.2 percent from the field during that stretch, nearly two percent worse than the Tigers’ season mark of 41 percent, second-worst in the SEC. In four of those 13 games, Missouri failed to make 20 field goals. The Tigers lost by an average of 14.8 points, with a 49-point loss at Kentucky and three other losses by 20 or more.
“This has been miserable,” Anderson said Tuesday of the streak. “This has been hard. It’s been hard for me. It’s been hard for them.”
Missouri’s freshmen struggled in particular during the streak. Wright, Montaque Gill-Caesar and Tramaine Isabell were all suspended at some point, missing a combined nine-and-a-half games.
The five freshmen, including D’Angelo Allen and Jakeenan Gant, underperformed on the court as well.
During the 13-game streak, the Tigers got an average of 19.8 points per game from the freshmen, who shot 37.5 percent from the floor and turned the ball over 61 times (4.7 per game).
The script flipped Tuesday, as it was the freshmen leading the charge, combining for 41 points on 55.6-percent shooting with just three turnovers.
While much of that was thanks to Wright’s 28 points on 10-of-13 shooting, Gill-Caesar and Gant were also key contributors. Gant scored four points on two emphatic dunks and tallied six rebounds and a game-high three blocks. Gill-Caesar scored four straight points during a crucial second-half stretch and totaled nine on the night, tied for second-most on the team, to go with three assists.
“All the freshmen have been up and down, and that’s normal,” Anderson said. “… When they struggle, I really try to remain positive. I know they really wouldn’t say that all the time, but I’ve really tried to be more positive than maybe I ever have in my coaching career.
“And so the good thing is, they all contributed. All five freshmen contributed (Tuesday). Some more than others. But that’s good. That’s what they need to be doing this late in the season.”
Though the Tigers were able to notch a “W” Tuesday, there were still glimpses of the missteps that allowed the 13-game streak to persist. Excluding Wright, the Tigers were 9-of-31 (29 percent) from the field and 1-of-11 from 3-point range.
“If he doesn’t score 28 points, it’s a different deal,” Anderson said. “We’re not happy.”
The Tigers had separate scoreless stretches of four and five minutes in the game, an all too common sight during the early months of 2015. Missouri also failed to sink 20 field goals yet again.
Still, where the offense lacked, the defense shined. Florida was held to 33.3-percent shooting in the second half and missed 18 3-point attempts. Anderson said the Tigers made frequent defensive shifts in the second half to keep Florida off guard.
“Down the stretch, we switched everything,” Anderson said. “We were able to keep them from getting the ball into their big guy. They didn’t make shots, and it makes everything look good when you don’t make shots.”
Meanwhile, the Tigers were making the shots they couldn’t take for granted during the losing streak: free throws. Missouri’s 67.2 percent free-throw rate is fourth-worst in the SEC, and late misses contributed to the painful loss to Arkansas.
While Florida missed 11 second-half free throws, Missouri sunk nine of its 10 to keep the Gators at a distance.
For the first time in nearly seven weeks, the Tigers were the ones eagerly awaiting the final seconds to pass, leaving Anderson’s post-game opening statement short and sweet.
“We won,” he said. “Any questions?”