By The Associated Press
COLUMBIA —Johnathan Williams III recalled Saturday some rebounding advice he heard in high school in Memphis.
“Don’t let the ball find you, you find the ball,” he said.
The freshman did plenty of that in his fourth career game with Missouri, grabbing 17 rebounds and scoring seven points to help the Tigers topple Gardner-Webb 72-63.
A 6-foot-9-inch forward, Williams became the first freshman to start a season opener for the Tigers since 2004. He only shot 3-of-10 from the field Saturday, but his rebounding helped Missouri (4-0) take a 46-29 advantage on the boards and a 46-18 lead in scoring from the paint.
“He has a great second jump,” coach Tim Fuller said. “And he has a great nose for the ball. He just gets off the floor very quickly.”
Naji Hibbert and Jerome Hill both scored 17 points for Gardner-Webb (2-3).
Missouri led 31-29 at the break but amassed 10 fouls in the first 7:47 of the second half. Officials whistled Jabari Brown for a technical with 14:53 remaining after he missed a fast-break layup and got tangled with a handful of Gardner-Webb players underneath the basket.
The Tigers’ bench then received a technical after complaining that no infraction was called against Jordan Clarkson on a missed layup with 11:14 on the clock. Hibbert converted one of the two ensuing free throws to narrow the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ deficit to 48-45.
“We have a very active bench and I encourage them to be enthusiastic, so I’ll take that technical,” Fuller said. “I told the official, ‘I’ll take that, and I’ll address it with the bench.'”
Missouri answered with a 14-0 run capped by a 3-point play by Williams with 7:24 remaining to give the team some breathing room the rest of the game. His put-back dunk created the loudest applause of the night from the 6,738 in attendance.
Missouri scored its first 26 points from the paint before Ross converted the first of two free throws with 2:34 remaining in the opening half. Tony Criswell and Torren Jones added another three combined points from the charity stripe to complete the Tigers’ scoring for the opening 20 minutes.
Missouri made 20 of its final 22 free throw attempts after missing its first three, a notable turnaround after only making 60.5 percent from the line entering the game. The improved shooting helped make up for a season-high 21 turnovers.
“I definitely think it’s a sign of us still developing cohesiveness,” Fuller said. “When we don’t see our 3’s fall, go 0-for-8 in the first half, guys get a little tense and start to rush it a little bit. We’ve just got to continue to work.”
Gardner-Webb scored its first six points from inside the lane but only two of its next 23 came from the paint. The Runnin’ Bulldogs used an early 10-0 run to lead 14-10 just 7:20 into the game, but that proved to be their biggest lead of the afternoon.
“Anytime you can line your team up against talented players and well-coached teams in tough environments you’re certainly going to get a lot out of it,” first-year coach Tim Craft said. “I think we’ll get a lot out of this game. We need to learn from it and move on.”
The game marked the opening of the Las Vegas Invitational for both teams, who had never faced each other prior to Saturday. Although the matchup had no impact on the outcome of the tournament, both schools will travel to Nevada for games on Thanksgiving.