Looking to leave its own legacy in the Southeastern Conference Tournament at Bridgestone Arena, Missouri could not topple the SEC’s most elite team in recent history in a 72-61 loss to No. 1 seed Alabama.
The Tigers (24-9, 11-7), playing in their first-ever SEC semifinal as the No. 4 seed, faced the task of taking on SEC Player of the Year Brandon Miller who has led the Crimson Tide (28-5, 16-2) to a projected NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed.
Missouri erased a 10-point first-half deficit but watched its effort evaporate away in a 16-3 Alabama run midway through the second half, riding on the performance of Miller. The SEC Freshman of the Year scored 16 of his team-high 20 points in the second half and added 12 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season.
His standout effort outshined a balanced effort from the Tigers, who featured three players in double figures. Graduate guard D’Moi Hodge led the Mizzou offensive output with a 21-point, nine-rebound performance. Hodge, a snub from the SEC All-Defensive Team, also grabbed two of Missouri’s 10 steals.
Graduate guard DeAndre Gholston and senior forward Noah Carter tallied 17 and 10 points, respectively as well. Noticeably quiet from scoresheet was senior forward Kobe Brown, who finished with only six points and seven rebounds.
Brown’s limitations could be linked to a play late in the first half when the forward received a blow to the back of his head, leaving him on the floor for a couple minutes. He did not miss any time following the dead-ball timeout, but scored only two points after the scare.
Saturday’s semifinal showdown featured a duel between two teams known primarily for their elite offenses, but defense and inefficient shooting displays ruled the back-and-forth contest.
Alabama, boasting the nation’s No. 3 ranked 3-point defense and top-rated two-point defense, proved why it holds those high regards. The Crimson Tide held Missouri to a 33.8% mark from the field, including just 28% from behind the arc.
However, the Tigers’ defense forced Alabama to similar marks throughout the first half. The Crimson Tide shot 43.3% from the field and just two-of-15 from 3-point range in the opening frame but flipped the script in the second half.
Alabama made six-of-12 3-pointers and shot 55.6% from the field in the second half, pulling away for yet another signature victory in what has been an impressive season full of those victories for the Tide.
Missouri and Alabama entered the semifinal matchup as the top-two scoring offenses in the SEC, but they did not look the part for most of the first half. The pair, who average a combined 162.6 pointer per game, scored only 20 combined points in the first 10 minutes.
Shooting woes and stifling defensive pressure affected both offenses over that opening stretch. Mizzou made just three of its first 15 shot attempts, while Alabama countered with a slightly-higher five-for-17 mark.
However, despite the slow start, the Tide built up to a 10-point first-half advantage behind its size, which provided an edge on the offensive glass. Alabama out-rebounded the Tigers 44-to-28 on the afternoon, snatching nine offensive boards.
Those second-chance opportunities culminated in only nine points for the Crimson Tide. Missouri, even with its lackluster rebounding margin, ousted Alabama’s second-chance totals with 12 points on eight offensive rebounds.
A key to the Tide’s first-half success was freshman forward Noah Gurley, who scored 11 of his 19 points in the opening half. He provided a secondary punch to Miller, draining three 3-pointers and adding a block.
Gurley’s performance helped to negate a mistake-filled opening frame for Alabama, which turned the ball over nine times while only forcing two turnovers of its own. The Tigers scored only six points on those miscues, leaving more points on the floor.
Missouri did fight back toward the end of the first half, capping a 7-2 run with an absurd 3-point jumper from Hodge in the corner. The sharpshooter caught the ball with his back to the basket, gathered himself and launched a prayer that was answered with a swish to cut the deficit to 31-29 at the intermission.
Hodge then replicated the feat once again to begin the second half, capitalizing on a second-chance opportunity for a 3-pointer that gave Missouri its first lead since the 15:42 mark of the first half.
However, that advantage lasted mere minutes as Alabama took full control behind Miller, Clowney and sophomore center Charles Bediako, who scored 10 points and added five rebounds.
The Crimson Tide rode that surge throughout the second half, securing a spot in the SEC Championship game, which will take place at noon Sunday.
Missouri will now await its fate on Selection Sunday. The Tigers, after picking up a victory against Tennessee Friday, have been rumored to be slotted anywhere between the No. 6 to No. 8 seed.
For Mizzou, any NCAA Tournament appearance is a welcome sight, but the Tigers will hope to avoid the infamous No. 8/9 matchup, which would lead to a possible meeting with a No. 1 seed in the Round of 32.
The selection show will be aired at 5 p.m. CT Sunday on your local CBS affiliated station.