By The Associated Press
LAS VEGAS—Missouri’s biggest concern heading to the Las Vegas Invitational was how to establish a frontcourt presence.
Coach Frank Haith said he got what he was looking for Thursday night, particularly from Johnathan Williams and Ryan Rosburg, two of four Tigers to score in double figures in a 78-67 win over Northwestern in the tournament’s opening round.
Jordan Clarkson scored 13 of his 21 points in the second half to lead Missouri, while Williams and Rosburg each had 14.
“We’ve relied on only (Clarkson and Jabari Brown) early this season, and we needed to get production out of our post guys,” Haith said. “That was the first step toward that tonight, with Ryan and J3 (Williams) getting in double figures. Both those guys having the kind of night they had, I think that’s important for us as we move forward.”
The Tigers, who outscored Northwestern in the paint 40-14, scored the first 14 points of the second half to erase a five-point halftime deficit and take a 48-39 lead at the 15:10 mark and never looked back.
After Northwestern’s second-half drought was ended by JerShon Cobb, who scored a game-high 22 points, the Tigers extended their lead to 13, when Brown hit a 3-pointer to give them a 54-41 advantage. The 6-foot-5 junior guard wasn’t finished, as he scored five of his team’s next 10 points and dished a nifty backward pass to Clarkson, who finished with a one-handed slam dunk that exemplified the Tigers’ transition game.
“That’s the way we play, we like to get up and down and play in transition,” Clarkson said. “In the second half we tightened things up and pressured the ball. And that helped us get out into the transition game. We want to stamp our identity on the defensive end, playing hard. If we play hard on defense, we’re going to get those easy shots, those easy dunks. And that’s how we play, that’s where we’re most comfortable.”
Said Haith: “I think that’s when our team is at its best. That’s one of our strengths. We play well in transition. But you … gotta play defense in order for that to happen. I thought that keyed our ability to get transition buckets.”
Missouri (6-0), which went from shooting 0-for-7 from the 3-point line in the first 20 minutes to shooting 4-of-7 in the second half, held Northwestern to just 36.4 percent shooting in the second half, compared with the Wildcats’ 50 percent shooting from the field in the first half.
There were six ties and six lead changes in the first half, and the Wildcats connected on 6 of 13 jumpers from 3-point range. Cobb led the charge early, shooting 4 for 6 from the field (3-of-5 from 3-point range) en route to 16 points in the first half. After falling behind 19-13 midway through the first half, Northwestern went on a 26-15 run to take a 39-34 halftime lead.
But it was Missouri’s defensive intensity in the second half that thwarted every effort by Northwestern, which missed its first six shots after halftime.
“The more stops we got, we were getting more confident,” Haith said. “We had better movement in the second half. Once we were able to do that, we were able to attack, we had better ball movement from side to side, (and) I thought we did a great job of that.
“And we attacked in the paint. When teams sag like that, and we were still able to get those points in the paint, that’s good and that’s what we gotta do.”
Tre Demps and Nathan Taphorn each scored 11 for Northwestern (4-3).
Missouri, which won by double digits for the fifth time this season, is now 13-4 on a neutral court under Haith. Since 2011, the Tigers are 17-1 in the month of November, and dating back to 2006 have won 44 of their 50 games in the month.
The Tigers, who played on Thanksgiving Day for the second consecutive year, face Nevada on Friday, while Northwestern (4-3) will play No. 19 UCLA.