As a six-and-a-half-point underdog, Missouri went into a tough environment in Pittsburgh and came out victorious as the Tigers held off the Panthers for a 71-64 victory.
The second half belonged to the Tigers. After Pittsburgh regained the lead less than four minutes into the final 20 minutes with a 7-0 run, Missouri's offense and defense took off, propelling the Tigers to outscore Pitt 29-20 the rest of the way.
An Anthony Robinson II bucket and a foul gave the momentum back to the Tigers while Noah Carter and Sean East II pushed Mizzou’s advantage to six following the under-12 timeout.
Defensively, Connor Vanover showcased his best stretch in a black and gold uniform, collecting a block, a steal and three of his seven rebounds in the second half. His 7-foot-5 length made it difficult for Pitt players to get a clean shot off. Vanover’s impressive performance was in response to Dennis Gates demoting him to the scout team’s starting center over the past two days.
“He wasn’t afraid of the accountability that I had for him. I said if you’re not going to give us what we need, then I’m not going to play you and he said okay coach,” Gates said.
It’s safe to say Vanover took the criticism well.
“I wasn’t going to not hold him accountable,” Gates said. “What I appreciate the most is that the young man allows himself to be held accountable. He didn’t bark, he didn’t fuss, he didn’t bite. He didn’t have a bad attitude. He came and gave his very best on the scout team and we saw a reflection of that in the game.”
With the lead in the second half, Missouri kept its composure while the Panthers chased the Tigers on the scoreboard. But behind its veteran leaders, MU never relinquished its lead, which rewarded a sixth win and more impressively, a 2-0 road start against Power Six schools.
“I challenged our guys to come out and play 40 minutes of basketball and they answered that expectation,” Gates said. “It started in our postgame when we played against Loyola. We won the game but our guys were still incomplete with that feeling.”
Pitt cut it to a single possession as Blake Hinson caught the hot hand, knocking down a pair of 3-pointers with under three to play. But Caleb Grill, who finished with 10 points and five rebounds, responded on the other end with a tough layup at the basket. Grill was another player removed from the starting lineup, but like Vanover, his response helped generate winning basketball.
“Caleb Grill is a big-time human being, a great kid, unbelievable,” Gates said. “He knew what we needed. He’s one of our better and more efficient rebounders at the guard spot and he was fighting for some of those touches on that end.”
The Panthers gave once last hoorah, but Nick Honor, who didn’t score all night, tossed an alley-oop pass to Vanover with under two minutes to left. Sean East, the lead man for the Tigers this season, closed out the game with three crucial free throws. The Louisville native tallied his fourth 20-point game of the season finishing with 21 on 53% shooting.
Missouri looked like a completely different team on Tuesday night in the Steel City. The three-game homestand over Thanksgiving break, which included a bad loss to Jackson State, raised more questions than answers, but that was all in the past as the Tigers took the floor at the “Zoo” in the inaugural ACC-SEC Challenge.
Pittsburgh, a talented team that will likely hear its name called in March, presented all types of challenges for the Tigers when it came to their ability to rebound and shoot from behind the arc, but in the first half Dennis Gates' squad stood up to the challenge.
The Tigers outrebounded the Panthers 36-33 with four different Tigers collecting five-plus rebounds.
“It was a challenge and a focus,” Gates said. “The challenge and the focus was part of the game plan. They were plus 17 and a half in the rebounding margin out of their first six to seven games and we wanted to put ourselves in a situation. We had no shot if we weren’t going to control the rebounds. We had no shot.”
Going with a bigger lineup helped the Tigers win the battle, as Aidan Shaw and Tamar Bates joined Nick Honor, Noah Carter, and Sean East II. It was actually a late night idea by East that led to changes in the starting five.
“Sean East texted me in the middle of the night and we texted about one or two in the morning after games. And he said, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’,” Gates said. “And I took his advice. I looked at it. I dissected it from an analytical standpoint, but he planted the seed and I said okay, let me look into that and analytically, defensively and offensively it gave us what we needed from the standpoint of coming on the road.”
The plan worked as Mizzou came out with confidence on both ends of the floor as both teams grinded out a low-scoring beginning that didn’t see a team reach the ten-point mark until under the 14-minute mark off a Hinson 3-pointer.
A second chance layup by the freshman phenom Robinson II put the Tigers back on top at 11-10, and from there on both teams went back and forth on the scoreboard resulting in 12 lead changes through the first 20 minutes of play.
Foul trouble which led to free throws helped find Missouri down six midway through the first stanza, but Carter, who finished with 13 points and eight boards, pulled the Tigers within a point before the former Hoosier, Bates, buried a jumper putting Mizzou back on top for the first time in nearly nine minutes. Following a Jaland Lower jumper, Bates buried a triple from behind the arc for his 10th first-half point.
Missouri’s leading scorer, East, tied Bates in the first half scoring department as his 3-pointer with under 40 seconds to play sent Mizzou into the locker room with a 38-35 lead.
The Tigers return home on Sunday to face off against Wichita State at Mizzou Arena. Wichita State is 6-1 on the year and will play Richmond before coming to Columbia. Last year’s meeting between the Tigers and Shockers resulted in MU coming away with an overtime victory at Charles Koch Arena.