By The Associated Press
Jabari Brown heads to the basket during the game against Long Beach State on Jan. 4, 2014. Brown has been high scorer in six of Missouri’s 13 games, averaging 18.4 points per game.
COLUMBIA —Missouri needed big plays down the stretch to pull out a win its last time out.
Coach Frank Haith could do without the unnecessary drama when the 21st-ranked Tigers open the Southeastern Conference schedule against Georgia on Wednesday night.
“Throughout this first half of the year we’ve been a team when the bell needed to be answered, we answered,” Haith said. “But when we get a lead, we’re not quite there yet in terms of taking a possession off.”
Haith notes with pride that two free throws at the end of the Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois are all that separates the Tigers (12-1) from a perfect start. Missouri has the nation’s longest home-court winning streak at 26 in a row, too, to go with an 81-game run against non-conference opponents dating to 2005-06.
Still, he frets about the occasional coasting.
Missouri was up 51-38 with 13:32 to go against Long Beach State on Saturday, but with just under six minutes to go the lead was down to two points.
“I just felt like we had an opportunity to win and we didn’t take advantage of it,” Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said. “And you don’t get those opportunities on a Top 25 team of this caliber very often.
Control was restored on Jabari Brown’s 3-pointer with 2:17 to go that made it 64-57 and Earnest Ross added five free throws in six attempts to help the Tigers win by 10. Missouri is shooting 56 percent from 3-point range in the final five minutes of games this season, and 55 percent overall, helping them survive a late 17-5 run by West Virginia, and put away UCLA and North Carolina State.
Missouri trailed most of the first half Saturday largely because it failed to block out, surrendered offensive rebounds and left shooters unattended.
Ryan Rosburg finished with a career-best 11 rebounds, but everyone started slow in that category, with Long Beach State getting seven offensive rebounds early.
“They were killing us,” Rosburg said. “I think it was all of us just boxing out.”
Missouri shot 52 percent against Long Beach State, its seventh time of at least 50 percent. But while the lead was getting shaved to two points, Haith players were trying to “thread the needle” on passes, holding onto the ball instead of passing to a man downcourt.
Defense has been a constant all year. UCLA and West Virginia were held a combined 35 points below their average and Long Beach State was held to 26 percent shooting in the second half and 33 percent overall.
“There’s no question their length bothered us,” Monson said. “Their length kept us out of the paint.”
Georgia (6-6) has lost two straight on the road by an average of 17 points and committed 20 turnovers its last time out at George Washington. Charles Mann leads a balanced attack with a 13-point average and nine players have made starts.
Haith wants players to look past the .500 record and embrace the opportunity ahead.
“I will tell you this: When you get into conference play, it’s a new season,” Haith said. “You get a new life.”