FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Missouri felt good going into halftime, but it should’ve felt better.
The No. 20 Tigers ended the first half of its road game against No. 13 Arkansas on Wednesday with a 34-27 lead. They’d done it with their best player, senior forward Kobe Brown, who’d carried them to victories with back-to-back 30-point performances, only playing six minutes. And they’d done it despite surrendering a plus-eight advantage on the boards.
But the momentum was swinging towards the Razorbacks. Mizzou was up 34-19 on the home team with 2:56 left in the period before Arkansas closed out on an 8-0 run. The Tigers never got it back. The Razorbacks took a 43-42 lead with 14:23 remaining and stayed ahead the rest of the way, earning a 74-68 win.
“Once they took that lead, we were playing uphill,” head coach Dennis Gates said. “We missed eight straight shots and I don’t think we were able to execute how we needed to execute. Arkansas started the game 8-for-26 and ended the game 16-for-21 and lived at the free throw line. So credit to them, they did a great job.”
For the third game in a row, Mizzou rocketed ahead after the opening tip-off. The visitors established a 14-8 edge, then went on a 9-0 run to put the Razorbacks on their heels. The Tigers utilized a 2-3 zone to shut down Arkansas’ offense. Going into the game, the hosts were shooting 58.1% from inside the arc and just 30.0% from outside. Against Missouri’s zone, though, the Razorbacks shot 50.0% on 2-pointers and 16.7% on 3s.
Mizzou also got a lift from the senior point guard Sean East II, who entered the game at the 16:16 mark of the first half for Brown, who’d just picked up his second foul. East shot 4-5 from the field to lead the team at halftime with nine points.
“We’re big on trying to make the first blow,” East said. “You know, hit the first punch and don’t respond to their lick. So we just try to come out and execute the game plan the way the coach wants us to.”
The execution started to wear off in the second half, though. Arkansas figured out the 2-3 zone and found its range, going 4-9 from distance. The things that bothered the Tigers in the first half remained present. Although Brown returned to the floor, he shot just 2-6 and grabbed one rebound in the final 20 minutes. The Razorbacks finished the game scoring 17 second-chance points off of 15 offensive rebounds.
Arkansas lit Mizzou up for 47 points in the second half, with 21 of them coming from the junior guard Ricky Council IV. Missouri scored 34 — the same amount they had in the first half — suffering the 74-68 loss.
Gates knows it’s not a season-defining game for his team. Being as competitive as they were against a team of the Razorbacks’ caliber is still impressive. But it stings knowing they had a good chance to win.
“Ultimately, we were just stifled,” Gates said. “We had the lead for 25 minutes in that game. We gotta close it. But you know, we got another lesson that we’ve learned.”
The Tigers went on a three-game winning streak after their first loss of the season, with two victories coming against ranked opponents. Senior point guard Nick Honor said he’s looking forward to seeing how the team improves even more after their second loss.
“I’m really just proud of our guys,” Honor said. “We competed well and, at the end of the day, when we look at it, we’re doing a lot better than everybody expected. And we believed this since the beginning. So it was a loss but it was definitely a lesson. I mean, we feel that we are one of the top teams in the country. And we just continue to get better and look at our mistakes and move on.”
Mizzou managed to stay close to Arkansas even after the Razorbacks took the lead away. But the Tigers could never seem to get over the hump, largely due to the number of trips to the foul line they allowed.
Missouri doesn’t typically give up many free throws — per KenPom, 19.2% of the points scored against the team have come from foul shots, which ranks 114th in the country. But the Tigers were on the wrong end of a few too many calls against Arkansas, allowing the hosts to get comfortable at the stripe. The Razorbacks went 11-13 from the line in the second half, with Council going 10-11 alone.
The visitors nearly matched Arkansas’ free throw total for the game, but shot well below their average. Entering the matchup, Mizzou was shooting 75.1% on foul shots, but made just 14-21 on Wednesday. Every Tiger who attempted a free throw missed at least one. It was the team’s second-worst performance at the stripe this year.
“We’re a better free throw shooting team than what we displayed, Gates said. “Whenever you have D’Moi Hodge get on the line and miss two free throws in the first half, that’s unacceptable. Whenever you have Nick Honor go 4-5, whenever you have Noah Carter go 3-5 and then you have Kobe Brown go 5-6, I would live and die with those guys on the free throw line. If it was end of game, I would guarantee those guys shoot 100%. And we had the right guys on the free throw line, we didn’t execute free throws … We’re not a 66% free throw shooting team. And we gotta you know, go back to the drawing board and see what we can do better in that area.”
Missouri (12-2, 1-1 SEC) will look to get back in the win column on Saturday, hosting Vanderbilt (8-6, 1-0) inside Mizzou Arena at 11 am
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