After a strong end to the first half, it looked like the new-look Missouri Tigers were going to breeze to a season-opening victory over Central Michigan, but the Chippewas had other plans.
With a team full of newcomers, it was a familiar face that led the way for the Tigers. Javon Pickett led the Tigers in scoring with 18 points and did so by combining a smooth outside stroke with some tenacious drives to the paint.
Early in the game Pickett was the only Tiger that was able to provide a scoring spark with 6 quick points, and Cuonzo Martin was loving it. “I thought Javon set an aggressive tone early just driving the ball and making plays,” Martin said.
But despite Pickett’s quick start, the rest of the Tigers couldn’t say the same. Trailing 19-13 midway through the first half, the Tigers needed some newcomers to step up, and they did just that.
A string of back-to-back threes, first from Ronnie DeGray III, then Boogie Coleman, and then Amari Davis gave the Tigers their first lead since 4-2, and they never relinquished it.
Behind a raucous student section that erupted upon that scoring burst, the Tigers locked in defensively and shot the ball on their way to 20-6 run in the final 6:57 of the first half.
At halftime, the Tigers had a comfortable, 45-29 lead led by Pickett, Davis, and DeGray, who were all in double figures.
When the teams returned from half, it looked like the Tigers would continue their first half momentum when Boogie Coleman nailed a step back-three, his fourth consecutive make from downtown, over a defender to open up the scoring in the second half, but it wouldn’t last.
Kobe Brown, who was held scoreless in the first half, picked up his fourth foul prior to the first media timeout of the half, and when the teams returned, the Chippewas’ halftime adjustment to a zone defense caused the Tigers’ offense to falter.
The Tiger offense went scoreless for five minutes, and Central Michigan countered with a 12-2 run that cut the Missouri lead to just 54-50 with 13:10 to play. After the game, Cuonzo Martin said, “I didn’t mind the zone at all.” However, it sure looked like his players did as the Tigers shot just 33% from the field after shooting 55% in the first half.
Instead of the zone, Martin attributed the Tigers’ lackluster start to the second half to his team getting somewhat complacent. “I thought what happened was we got comfortable with the lead,” the Tigers Head Coach said.
In desperate need of a spark, it was hustle plays that turned the tide for the Tigers.
Ronnie DeGray III, who was relentless on the boards all night with 12 rebounds, snagged multiple offensive rebounds on one possession before adding two points at the line, and moments later, freshman forward Yaya Keita drew his second charge of the night before also crashing the offensive glass for a putback bucket.
That sequence got the Tigers’ lead back up to double digits at 60-50 with 7:42 to play, and the Tiger student section was letting their team know their appreciation for the hustle. After the game, DeGray made sure the students knew the role they played. “Being able to play in front a huge student section in a non conference game, it was really rocking and provided the energy,” he said. Cuonzo Martin echoed those praises for the student section, “I felt it. Normally I’m so locked in, but I felt it.”
However, just like the Chippewas refused to go away at halftime, they rallied back again to cut the lead back to 64-62 with 3:32 in the game. Led by 13 second half points from forward Miroslav Stafl and 10 more from G Jermaine Jackson Jr., the Chippewas had the Tigers on their heels.
Just when it looked like things could be going south for the Tigers, Javon Pickett, the star of the night, stepped up again for the Tigers by hitting a massive three to extend the Tiger lead back to five.
From there, Kobe Brown took over, dominating in the paint and getting to the line despite his four fouls adding 7 points in the final three minutes. After the game, Coleman explained that when Brown reentered the game in crunch time he told him, “Just do what you do best,” and Brown certainly delivered by sealing the Tigers a 78-68 victory.