By Cody Mroczka
COLUMBIA – Another close game, another Missouri win.
With guards Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown struggling to find their rhythm, Missouri (18-7, 6-6 Southeastern Conference) relied on some unlikely players to pull out a hard fought 75-70 win over Tennessee (15-10, 6-6 SEC) on Saturday at Mizzou Arena.
The game started fast, at least for Missouri, who made their first eight of nine shots from the field. After Tennessee settled down, the game became a physical battle between the team’s frontcourts, a matchup Missouri coach Frank Haith had feared given the strong play of big-bodied Tennessee forwards Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes. The 6-foot-8-inch pair of power forwards came into the matchup averaging a combined total of approximately 25 points and 18 rebounds. On Saturday, they combined for 18 points and 13 rebounds.
Tennessee ended up outrebounding Missouri by six, including nine more offensive rebounds. The Volunteers leading scorer, Jordan McRae, poured in 31 points, but the Tigers still managed to pull out a crucial victory. Partly due to the strong play of Missouri’s starting and reserve forwards and partly due to shooting 56 percent from the field.
“I told our guys if Mizzou beats us, their bigs have to beat us”, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “We rather have their big men make those plays down the stretch.
Missouri started its’ usual forward combination of Ryan Rosburg and Johnathan Williams. Williams turned in a strong game with 10 points and five rebounds, but Rosburg got into early foul trouble in the first half. That meant that seldom used reserves Torren Jones and Keanau Post would see extended minutes. Jones and Post combined for 12 points and eight rebounds, but more importantly played tough defense against the two of the better forwards in the SEC.
“You guys always ask us about our big men, we got confidence in them,” Brown said. “I feel like they’re getting better and better every game.”
Sometimes the biggest contributions make the smallest mark in the score sheet. Jones had two blocks on layups that saved points. Post was a surprisingly effective substitute when Williams needed a rest. Rosburg took a charge with four seconds left and Tennessee down three points.
Haith gave credit where it was due, but also cited that it was the overall team performance that lead to the win. Haith reiterated the confidence he has had in his post players.
“Those guys, all they’ve done is proven they can do it,” Haith said. “Hopefully they can continue to do it.”
In a game where Clarkson and Brown struggled to score, Missouri was able to make up the difference for a win on Saturday evening. With six games remaining on the schedule, Missouri is projected to be one of the first four out of the NCAA Tournament according to ESPN’s Bracketology. The Tigers play next on Feb. 19 against Vanderbilt at Mizzou Arena.