A historic upset was right there for the taking.
Or so it seemed.
Missouri men’s basketball went toe to toe with No. 1 Auburn for the entire game on Tuesday night, leading for nearly 27 minutes and forcing its opponent to shoot 30% from the floor. But in the end it was unable to come away with the upset.
Cuonzo Martin’s team held on for as long as it could, putting up a tough fight with a stingy defensive effort, but eventually lost 55-54 to Auburn at Mizzou Arena after letting the clock run out on the final possession instead of fouling.
“This is a game that we had,” senior guard Javon Pickett said. “We feel like we are a good team, as good as anybody. I feel like we went out there and proved that tonight. We just gotta go finish and close.”
Outplayed on the boards — especially in the second half — Missouri allowed Auburn to grab 25 offensive rebounds. As a result, MU had 18 less shots. Auburn took 70 shot attempts, making 21, while Mizzou shot 20 of 52 (38.5%) from the floor.
“We were playing good (defense),” Jarron ‘Boogie’ Coleman said. ‘”It came down to the offensive rebounds. … They had 25 offensive rebounds, losing by one point. That adds up.”
Entering Tuesday night’s game, it was reasonable to expect Missouri to be completely blown out from the jump. After all, Auburn came into the game on a 15-game win streak, with its only loss on the season an overtime defeat to then-No. 22 UConn on a neutral court. Bruce Pearl’s squad, boasting top NBA Draft prospect Jabari Smith Jr., along with a plethora of other talent, had just ascended to a No. 1 ranking in the country after a big conference victory over No. 12 Kentucky.
Missouri, however, did not roll over. Far from it.
Whether it was the classic big-win hangover for Auburn after having reached its first-ever No. 1 ranking, Missouri’s impressive defense on this night, or a healthy mix of both, it was the Missouri Tigers who were in control early in this one.
Missouri jumped out to a 12-2 lead and held Auburn without a bucket for five-and-a-half minutes early, only allowing Auburn to score on one of its first eight possessions.
With under 13 minutes left in the first half, Ronnie DeGray III drained a three-pointer in the corner with the shot clock winding down that extended Missouri’s lead to 15-6 to the delight of the lively student section — showing out in full force for the first time since the first game of the season.
But nine points is as far as the lead would grow.
Auburn made four consecutive shots after missing nine in a row and put a big dent in the lead. The two teams traded runs from there with Missouri holding its own.
Martin took Kobe Brown out of the game with 4:48 left in the first half after the forward picked up his second foul. And as has often been the case this season, as soon as Brown went out Missouri began to collapse.
Auburn went on an 8-0 run in just over a minute-and-a-half with Brown on the bench. Missouri settled for bad looks on offense and couldn’t contain Auburn on the other end.
“Coach said they’re gonna make tough shots,” Coleman said. “For that little spurt we were kind of discombobulated on offense a little bit. So we just got a little unorganized, but I feel like we survived that run. And we just got to finish the games.”
The freshman sensation Smith Jr. — whom Missouri held to five points on 2-for-15 shooting — drained a three-pointer with a little under three minutes left in the half to give Auburn its first lead of the game, 28-27.
It seemed at that point the No. 1 squad would come to life and extend its lead to double-digits. But that never happened.
The two teams were tied 31-31 at halftime. Auburn made 6 of its last 8 shots from the field entering the break. But Missouri had held Auburn to 11 of 30 (36.7%) shooting from the floor in the first half.
But surely Auburn would find its groove in the second half, right? It had repeatedly made huge comebacks this season and was simply the more talented team.
Think again. Missouri continued to play with tremendous toughness as the two teams were locked in a chippy defensive battle, each team trying to out-tough the other.
“That was as good as any in America tonight,” Martin said of Missouri’s defensive effort. “I mean, that’s who we have to be. We have to defend, rebound and play hard.”
Mizzou and Auburn combined to go 17 for 63 on field-goal attempts in the second half, neither letting up an inch. But MU was out-rebounded 33-16, an element that would do in Missouri in the end.
Auburn’s big moment came in the final minutes.
K.D. Johnson made huge back-to-back buckets, including an and-one layup that gave Auburn a 55-51 lead with 41 seconds left. Timeout Mizzou.
But then a bit of magic happened. Pickett drained a clutch three-pointer from the corner that trimmed the deficit to one point with 35.4 seconds remaining. Pickett finished with a team-high 17 points.
It would seem reasonable for Martin to instruct his team to foul. But that did not happen.
“Let’s get the rebound and push the ball up the floor,” Martin said of his strategy. ”Let’s get stops. And then depending on who got the ball whether we foul — we didn’t want to foul Wendell (Green Jr.).”
Auburn dribbled the ball out to take over 20 seconds off the clock, drove to the basket and got a shot off at the rim. Missouri then allowed multiple offensive rebounds and the ball eventually went out of bounds as time ran out on its huge upset bid.
“Tough pill to swallow,” Martin said. “But we’ll learn from it.”
This story was originally published January 25, 2022 10:03 PM.