Post-Game Report: Mizzou falters late against No. 1 Auburn
All evening, Missouri pushed No. 1 Auburn. The home Tigers led the nation's newly-ranked top team for more than 26 minutes and never trailed by more than four points. And with 35 seconds left, Javon Pickett drained a three-pointer from the left wing to cut Auburn's largest lead to a single point, raising the raucous home crowd to its feet.
Missouri never got a chance to finish the upset bid. Despite a mere 5.4-second difference between the shot clock and game clock, Cuonzo Martin's squad opted not to foul. The Tigers didn't get the ball back before the final buzzer sounded.
Auburn's K.D. Johnson, who had scored on two possessions in a row, held the ball until the end of the shot clock. He missed a fadeaway jumper from the baseline, but Walker Kessler, who victimized Missouri on the offensive glass throughout the second half, controlled the rebound. Kessler's follow missed, but by the time the ball bounced out of bounds, time had expired, leaving Missouri a point short, 55-54.
Asked after the game, Martin said he wasn't opposed to his team fouling, but he didn't want to foul Auburn point guard Wendell Green Jr., an 86.4-percent shooter from the line. Green brought the ball up the court but passed the ball with roughly 13 seconds left on the game clock.
"It was a little over five seconds on the clock," Martin said. "Let’s get the rebound and push the ball up the floor. Let’s get stops. It depended on who got the ball who we were going to foul. We didn’t want to foul Wendell, so it just depended on who got the ball that we would foul.”
While the fact that Missouri pushed the nation's No. 1 team to the brink represents a step in the right direction, especially considering it was less than two weeks ago that the team got blown out by 44 points at Arkansas, the final result led to a sullen postgame press conference.
“We did almost everything right except for one thing," said point guard Boogie Coleman. "... We played great, in my opinion. Just made a couple mistakes that cost us the game.”
Here are five things we learned from the loss.
1. This game will be remembered for Missouri's decision not to foul on Auburn's final possession. The Tigers did have time to get a final shot with a defensive stop. But the strategy was questionable for several reasons.
First, not fouling kept the two worst-case scenarios in play. Had Missouri fouled an Auburn player and he made both free throws, Missouri still would have had a chance to tie the game in regulation. But if Auburn knocked down a three or never gave the ball back, that chance would never materialize. Obviously, that came to fruition.
Plus, even if Missouri got a stop, the chances that it would get a decent look seemed slim. The home Tigers had no timeouts remaining, so they would have had to control the rebound, travel the length of the floor and get a shot off in about five seconds. And the fact that Auburn kept possession after Johnson's miss shouldn't have come as a shock. Auburn out-rebounded Missouri 33-16 during the second half, with 20 of those boards coming on the offensive glass.
Martin said the fact that Auburn had dominated on the glass down the stretch didn't enter into his decision to let the game play out.
“I wasn’t worried about it," he said. "You gotta block out. ... Just it was certain people we didn’t want to foul. We weren’t worried about them getting an offensive rebound.”
After Kessler's missed putback attempt, both Coleman and Ronnie DeGray had a chance to corral the ball in the final three seconds, but neither could secure it. The ball bounced out of bounds as the final buzzer sounded. The officials went to the monitor to determine whether to put a fraction of a second back onto the clock but quickly deemed the game over, sending Missouri to the locker room dejected.
2. Kessler's offensive rebound on Auburn's last possession was the last in a long series of killer second chances. Missouri's defense largely flummoxed Auburn's offense, which entered Tuesday averaging more than 80 points per game. Auburn shot just 21-70 from the field (30 percent) and 6-28 from three-point range (21.4 percent). But Auburn made up for its poor shooting by rebounding many of those misses.
In the second half, Auburn out-rebounded Missouri 33-16 overall. Bruce Pearl's squad grabbed an astounding 20 of its 30 misses after halftime. Forwards Devan Cambridge and Kessler combined for 14 of those offensive rebounds. The second (and third, and fourth) chances allowed Auburn to attempt 18 more field goals than Missouri.
“We gotta go hit people," Pickett said. "Can’t let people just run to us. We gotta go make the contact first, drive them back. That’s really it. We just gotta box out and get gritty.”
With two players standing 6-foot-10 or taller in its starting lineup, Auburn had a size advantage on Missouri. But the players wouldn't use that as an excuse for getting out-rebounded. After all, Missouri proved it could hang with Auburn on the boards in the first half, when it won the rebounding margin 22-15 and only gave up one offensive board. Both Pickett and Coleman said Missouri needed to do a better job of cutting off Auburn's perimeter players with box outs, not letting them get crash the boards.
“Yeah, they’re bigger, but like Javon said, we gotta go hit them," said Coleman. "Because they’re bigger, we gotta go hit them early. When they’re out on the perimeter, we can’t let them come down to the paint and meet them there, because when it becomes a jump ball, they’re probably going to get it over us.”
Tuesday marked the second game in a row the rebounding numbers have gotten lopsided in favor of Missouri's opponent in the second half. Alabama out-rebounded the Tigers 22-10 after halftime on Saturday.
3. In more positive news, Missouri played its best defensive game of the season. Auburn shot by far its lowest percentage of the year from the field and had its second-worst game from behind the three-point line. Missouri has only held one opponent to a lower percentage, that being Northern Illinois.
That should be encouraging for Martin, who said after Saturday's game that his team lacked a "defensive DNA."
“That was as good as anybody in America tonight," Martin said of his team's defensive performance. "And that’s who we have to be. We have to defend, rebound and play hard."
The Tigers particularly bothered Auburn freshman star Jabari Smith. Smith, who has been picking up buzz as a candidate to be selected with the No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA Draft, scored just five points on 2-15 shooting. Smith entered Tuesday averaging 15.3 points per game and shooting 42.3 percent from three-point range. He made just one of seven triples against Missouri.
Martin was particularly complimentary of freshman Trevon Brazile for his defensive effort against Smith.
"The biggest key was to make him do things that he’s uncomfortable doing," Martin said. "hat’s easier said than done, because he’s an elite level guy. I thought for the most part Trevon did a tremendous job defending him, using his length, and then when Ronnie defended him and Kobe (Brown) some, just really taking away the one or two things that he does well."
4. Javon Pickett is playing the best basketball of his career. Pickett has always brought defense and effort to the floor, but Missouri's lone senior has become the team's best offensive option of late. He delivered when Missouri needed him most against Auburn, draining the three-pointer that trimmed the deficit to one point in the final minute.
Pickett led Missouri with 17 points Tuesday. The performance marked his sixth consecutive game scoring in double figures. He's now averaging 9.9 points per game on the year, which is on track to be his highest figure by more than two points.
Martin said the scoring surge has been a product of Pickett recognizing the need for him to shoulder a heavier load on that end of the floor.
“I just think the confidence and understanding we need him to be productive," Martin said. "Being shot-ready. Because I thought, and you’re watching film, he passes up on three-point shots, he doesn’t take those shots, but he’s shooting the ball well and that’s why he’s shooting it. But just being aggressive and also taking advantage of a smaller guy defending him, getting around the rim, making plays, because he’s a physical player. I just think as a senior, there’s a tremendous amount of pride in how he operates.”
5. This team has gotten better. There was a time not too long ago when Missouri couldn't play a high-major team within 20 points. But the ending makes it difficult to view this performance as a positive. Even Martin more or less acknowledged that.
"Whether it’s 40 points, one point, the pain as a competitor is still the same to me," he said. "I’ve been upset about games we won because I feel like we didn’t play well. So that’s all the same.”
While the ranking of the opponent and the way the game ended made Tuesday's loss the most painful of the season for Missouri, that is becoming a trend. In each of the Tigers' past three losses, they have led for more than 25 minutes and have been in a one-possession game after the final media timeout.
"This is a game that we had," said Pickett. "We feel like we’re a good team, as good as anybody. I feel like we went out there and proved that tonight. We just gotta finish and close.”
Star of the Game: The student section. While it may have been due in part to the free giveaways or Red Panda performing at halftime, the bleachers behind the North baseline filled up early with Missouri students. The students made their voices heard with frequent "Bruce you suck" chants directed at Pearl, and the rest of the arena matched their energy as the game progressed. The result was the loudest Mizzou Arena crowd since perhaps Martin's first season.
“Everybody in the gym, they were tremendous," Pickett said. "We thank them for coming out. Student section was great. ... We fed into their energy. They helped us out a lot.”
Room for Improvement: Brown played a solid game for Missouri, scoring eight points to go along with 10 rebounds and three assists. But he hasn't shown the ability to take over the game on the offensive end of the floor lately like he did at times early in the season. On most of Missouri's second-half possessions, the team put the ball in Brown's hands. He mustered six points after the break. It may be a lot to ask of Brown, but Missouri needs more from him. In conference play, the Tigers are 2-0 when Brown scores in double figures and 0-5 when he fails to do so.
What it means: Missouri missed an opportunity to drastically alter the way this season is perceived by fans. The program's first win over the No. 1-ranked team might not have been enough to absolve non-conference losses to Liberty and UMKC, but it would have gone a long way toward ensuring Martin another season as head coach. Instead, Martin's decision not to foul on Auburn's final possession might have actually increased the temperature of his seat.
Next up: Missouri will travel to Iowa State as part of the SEC-Big 12 Challenge on Saturday. The Cyclones are the surprise of college basketball. After going 2-22 a season ago, Iowa State is 14-5 and ranked No. 23. Tipoff is set for 1 p.m.
Quotable: “We held them to 21 for 70, so we was playing good D. It came down to the offensive rebounds. They had 25. And 25 offensive rebounds, losing by one point, that adds up." -- Boogie Coleman