The new #1 team in all the land paid a visit to Columbia on Tuesday night. The Auburn Tigers were on a roll, having recently defeated Kentucky to extend their win streak to 15. As a result, they received their first ever No. 1 ranking in school history, and solidified themselves as the class of the conference. Missouri had their work cut out for them at home, as they faced an elite program with an NBA Lottery pick in Jabari Smith.
The student section was packed and deafening from the opening tip, and Missouri responded to the energy. They got out to an early 7-2 lead behind some suffocating defense and solid ball movement on offense. The intensity from the crowd was clearly motivating this team.
The lead extended to 10 early thanks a mid-range shot from Amari Davis. Javon Pickett, Ronnie DeGray III, and Boogie Coleman each had a 3-pointer to complete a hot shooting start for Mizzou from behind the arc.
As the game got into more of a rhythm, the intensity rose. Bruce Pearl and the Mizzou student section had some disagreements, while DeGray got into it with some of Auburn’s players. The tone was set early; this was not going to be a game for the faint of heart.
However, Auburn clawed their way back as the half went on. K.D. Johnson carried the load, as he began to get aggressive and essentially willed the Tigers to a one point lead with under three minutes to go.
The rest of the half went back-and-forth, with both sides trading buckets. The halftime score line was all knotted up at 31, reflective of a highly competitive half of basketball.
The recent positive trends for Missouri continued in this first half. Javon Pickett was stellar on the offensive end with 9 points, and Amari Davis continued to be a mid-range assassin.
The defense forced the Auburn offense into one of their worst halves of the season as well. Jabari Smith, the star of the show for Auburn (15.7 PPG), had a meager three points in the opening half, on a single three-pointer.
The improved ball movement is the biggest sign that these guys are finally meshing together, and that, combined with the crowd noise, led to a strong start from Missouri.
Following an amazing halftime performance from the famous Red Panda, the game resumed. Auburn jumped out to a fast start, but Kobe Brown scored four straight to give Mizzou another lead.
At the under eight timeout, offense was coming at a premium. The two teams had combined for 21 second half-points up to this stage in the game, and both sides were having to work extremely hard to get any sort of quality look at the rim.
Down the stretch, the difference became Auburn’s dominance on the glass. Their superior size showed up, especially on the offensive boards. It led to multiple fouls and extra possessions for Auburn, but Missouri kept battling back.
Jabari Smith would make a play, but then Kobe Brown would respond. Mizzou would cut the Auburn lead to one, but then the visitors would respond. The eb and flow of this game kept a packed Mizzou Arena on the edge of their seats for the final minutes.
A key offensive rebound and drawn foul from DeGray gave Mizzou a one-point lead with just under two minutes left. Johnson responded with a tough and-one floater in the lane, and then proceeded to add another layup to extend the lead to four with just over 40 seconds remaining. Pickett hit a three-pointer to cut the lead to one, but Auburn kept the ball alive on offense for long enough to drain the clock and escape Columbia with a win.
The result was still a loss, but there was plenty to like about this game. Mizzou went toe-to-toe with potentially the best team in the country, and outplayed them at times. Kobe Brown and Javon Pickett made play-after-play to keep this team in this game, accounting for 25 points and 17 rebounds between them, and the team as a whole matched Auburn’s physicality and hustle.
The defense forced Auburn into one of their worst offensive performances of the year, especially with holding Jabari Smith to only five points.
“The key was making him do things he wasn’t comfortable doing,” Cuonzo Martin said after the game. “I think Brazile really bothered him with his length and the guys did a great job.”
“Our coaches did a great job of telling us what he doesn’t like to do,” Javon Pickett said. “They gave us a great scouting report on how to play him.”
But, rebounding, especially late in the game, killed Missouri’s chances at winning this game. They were outgained by 10 on the boards and gave up a whopping 25 offensive rebounds.
“We gotta go hit people, we can’t let people just run at us,” Pickett said. “That’s really it.”
Still, this was an overall impressive showing that revealed the true potential of this team.
The theme of this season is clear: Mizzou plays down to their opponents, but also shows up against elite competition.
“This is a game that we had, we’re a good team, as good as anyone,” Pickett said. “We just gotta go finish and close.”
Boogie Coleman agreed, saying, “We played great in my opinion, there was just a couple of mistakes that hurt us.”
It is also definitely worth pointing out that Mizzou Arena only got louder as this game went on. This was a top tier environment for a basketball game, and the on-court play was enhanced because of it. “I think our fans understand the impact of being present, and it helps,” Martin said.
“The fans brought a lot of energy, and the student section was great,” Pickett emphasized.
Missouri will travel to Ames on Saturday, January 29th for the Big 12-SEC Challenge. The annual competition saw Mizzou take down TCU in a tight game last season, and they now have to take on a scrappy Cyclones team that has beaten some of the country’s best squads. Catch the Tigers take on Iowa State (14-5) at 1:00 CST on ESPNU.