By the Associated Press
COLUMBIA, S.C. — On a night where Missouri shot almost 70 percent from the field, the Tigers knew the key player was someone who never shot the ball.
Point guard Phil Pressley had nine assists, running the offense for Missouri (20-8, 9-6 Southeastern Conference) almost to perfection in the Tigers 90-68 win over South Carolina on Thursday night.
“A guy can affect the game like that without taking a shot in a positive way. There are few guys in the country that can do that,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said.
Missouri shot 69.6 percent (32 of 46) for the game, and plenty of those baskets were easy. The Tigers had 10 dunks and 46 points in the paint to pick up just their second win on the road this season. Missouri shot just nine 3-pointers, making six of them against overmatched South Carolina (13-15, 3-12).
Plenty of those plays were set up by Pressley, the SEC leader in assists at seven a game.
“To have complete control over a game without even taking one shot for the whole game — it just speaks volumes to the type of player he is. He can dominate the game by doing so many other little things,” Keion Bell said.
Bell was another difference Thursday night. He scored 24 points after missing the first game between the teams in January, where the Tigers shot 20 percent in the first half and had to come back from 13 points down for a 71-65 win. Bell shot 8 of 12 in this one, even adding four assists.
Alex Oriakhi scored 18 points for Missouri, making all six of his shots and all six of his free throws. Jabari Brown added 23 points, making eight of his 10 shots.
“I’ve never personally been in a game where everyone was hitting on all cylinders, especially against a good defensive team like South Carolina,” Brown said.
Missouri remains fifth in the SEC, just a game behind fourth place and a double bye in the conference tournament. With the victory, the Tigers reached 20 wins for the fifth straight year.
Damien Leonard came off the bench to lead South Carolina with a career best 20 points.
“We’ve got to keep working and keep playing together and help each other on defense,” Leonard said. “But tonight they were hitting everything.”
Brenton Williams and Brian Richardson each added 10 points for the Gamecocks, who have lost seven of their last eight games and remain just one game out of last place in the SEC. South Carolina will have to win the rest of its games to avoid playing in the opening round of the conference tournament.
“We never put up a fight,” said first-year South Carolina coach Frank Martin, who will likely miss a 20-win season for the first time in his career.
After shooting 67 percent in the first half, the Tigers made 12 of their first 13 shots from the field in the second half to go on a 31-13 run that ballooned a seven-point halftime lead into a 76-51 margin.
For most of the game, Missouri flirted with its best shooting night ever, 75.4 percent against Hawaii Loa in December of 1989. But the Tigers missed four of their last six shots to fall off the pace.
Missouri started the game hitting its first six shots and barely cooled off the rest of the half. But South Carolina always had a run to keep it close. The Gamecocks made seven of their 12 3-pointers in the opening half. South Carolina’s reserves scored 28 points, led by Williams’ 10 points.
Williams’ jumper with 2:35 left in the first half cut Missouri’s lead to 39-36. But the Tigers got dunks on each of their next three possessions and led 45-38 at halftime.
“In the first half, we’re depending on all of those 3s, and they’re getting dunks and layups and free throws and we’re depending on long bombs,” Martin said. “That’s going to dry up. Any time you depend on that, it is fool’s gold.”