For much of the second half on Friday night, it appeared Missouri would do something it hadn't done in 17 years. That's how long it has been since the Tigers lost an exhibition basketball game, a 78-70 setback to the North Melbourne Giants on November 9, 1996. With ten minutes to play, Mizzou trailed Central Missouri 65-57.
"Sometimes, when you tell guys about playing a team like this, how good they are on tape and how hard they play, they really don't want to believe you," Tiger head coach Frank Haith said. "But they played their butts off."
From there, the Tigers went on a 26-7 spurt and stretched the final margin to 92-79. Earnest Ross led the charge with four three-pointers during the run on his way to a 25-point night. But the final few minutes didn't erase the rest of a frustrating night for Mizzou.
"The one thing we tried to do was force them to take long outside shots," UCM head coach Kim Anderson said. "And they missed a few for a while and then, they're just a good team. They came back and made some plays."
"He (Ross) made some big shots," Haith said. "We needed it. They did a great job."
Missouri got 68 of its points from Ross, Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown. Freshman Johnathan Williams III chipped in eight points and 13 rebounds, but the other six Tigers who played managed just 16 points in 70 minutes. That included a scoreless eight-minute night from starting center Keanau Post, who never left the bench after halftime. Stefan Jankovic also did not see the floor in the final 20 minutes after scoring two points and turning it over twice in the first half.
"It's a message," Haith said. "We're a big team, but when you play a team that's small, it's hard for those guys. You saw Ryan (Rosburg) get in foul trouble, Keanau get in foul trouble. It's hard to play against those guys. We were able to adjust and go smaller."
Going forward, Haith knows he will need more than three players to provide him offense. Exhibition games generally serve as a chance to put plenty of players on the floor. But the Tigers had to play four starters at least 32 minutes and just six Tigers played more than eight minutes.
"We're going to do what we've got to do to win the game. Some guys got to get better," Haith said. "We've got to have some improvement in a lot of areas. Guys got to get themselves to earn playing time."
"We're gonna have other guys score," Clarkson said. "It's not just always gonna be us three. We have a talented team."
There were some tense moments, the game was closer than virtually anyone thought. But according to central figures on both sides, the outcome was never seriously in doubt.
"I don't feel like we were worried," Brown said. "Not to take anything away from them, they're a good team. But I feel like we're confident, me and Earnest, being in those type of games, Tony (Criswell) too, and we got some older guys like Jordan. I felt like we were confident, we just had to stick to what we were going to do."
"No. No," Anderson said. "I mean, it was nice being up, but I knew they would make a run. We couldn't fight off that run. The only lead that would have been safe would have been like 28 with five minutes to go."
The lead wasn't safe. But every other opponent on Missouri's schedule is a Division One team. The games that count start next Friday against Southeastern Louisiana. Haith begins an NCAA-mandated 17-day, five-game suspension that morning.