By the middle of the second half Thursday, the smiles were evident and pervasive on the Missouri bench. And considering everything the Tigers have been through this season on the road, why wouldn’t they be?
Missouri's Keion Bell (5) drives for the basket as South Carolina's Damien Leonard (32) and Mindaugas Kacinas (25) defend during the first half of their NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)
Missouri still had ten minutes left to play at South Carolina, but the Tigers — who had used a blistering offensive attack to take a 25-point lead at the moment — were well on their way to their second road win of the season, a 90-68 victory at Colonial Life Arena.
Now, on one hand, you could argue Missouri — which improved to 20-8, 9-6 in the Southeastern Conference — did what it was supposed to do against the struggling Gamecocks, who dropped to 13-15 overall, 3-12 in the SEC and have now lost 10 of their last 12 games. But when you factor in the Tigers’ 1-7 road record entering the game — a mark that included several heartbreaking losses — well, you can certainly understand why they wanted to enjoy the moment.
Especially when you remember that the Gamecocks are coached by Frank Martin, the same defensive-minded coach whose K-State teams handed Missouri two of its five losses last season. And don’t forget, South Carolina did give the Tigers all they could handle on Jan. 22, when Missouri prevailed 71-65 at Mizzou Arena.
Of course, the Tigers didn’t have senior starters Keion Bell and Laurence Bowers in that game due to injury. That would not be the case Thursday. While Bowers finished with a modest statline — six points, three rebounds — Bell made his presence known early and often, scoring 18 of his team-high 24 points by halftime to help Missouri build a 45-38 lead.
In fact, you could argue the Tigers’ lead could have and should have been more. South Carolina overcame two separate nine-point deficits in the half, thanks largely to its long-distance marksmanship. The Gamecocks, who entered the game as the worst-shooting team in the SEC, shot 58 percent from the field in the half and went 7-for-12 from three-point range.
But even that wasn’t enough to overtake Missouri by the break, as sophomore guard Jabari Brown teamed up with Bell to power a strong offensive attack. Brown had 10 of his 23 points by halftime, as he and Bell rebounded after struggling in a 90-83 road loss to Kentucky last Saturday in which they combined for only 15 points.
The Tigers, who actually led by as many as 13 points against Kentucky, made sure Thursday’s game wouldn’t be a repeat, as Missouri opened the second half with a vengeance. After a basket by Bell, Alex Oriakhi (18 points) was rewarded for a steal when he hustled downcourt and completed a three-point play, courtesy of a nice find from Phil Pressey (nine assists, three turnovers).
South Carolina proceeded to turn the ball over on its next possession, and Brown finished through contact to make the score 52-40. He then beat his defender on a backdoor cut to extend Missouri’s lead to 14, and Oriakhi completed the 12-2 run when he hammered home a feed down low despite the contact and made the ensuing free throw to make the score 57-42 and prompt a South Carolina timeout.
Missouri kept the heat on from there, extending its lead to as many as 25 points as the Gamecocks — whose offense cooled off considerably in the second half — struggled to get anything golf.
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