Tigers struggle to put away Broncos, 66-60

Missouri’s Ryan Rosburg puts up a shot while being defended by Western Michigan’s Mario Matasovic during Sunday night’s game in Columbia.

Missouri’s Ryan Rosburg puts up a shot while being defended by Western Michigan’s Mario Matasovic during Sunday night’s game in Columbia. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA — At least it wasn’t a loss.

That’s the positive for the 24th-ranked Missouri Tigers. However, a sluggish and sloppy performance from the Southeastern Conference’s last unbeaten team left much to be desired.

Missouri (10-0) could never really shake the Western Michigan Broncos (5-4), managing a 66-60 victory Sunday night at Mizzou Arena despite a season-low point total.

“I knew they were a capable team,” Missouri head coach Frank Haith said. “… It’s good for us to have one of those types of games that we have to scrap it out to get a ‘W.’”

Jabari Brown paced four Tigers in double figures with 15 points. Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross added 12 apiece while Tony Criswell had 10.

It was Missouri’s first game since a victory Dec. 7 against UCLA.

“We just came out flat and didn’t do some things that we wanted to do,” Missouri forward Ryan Rosburg said, brushing off any excuses about being rusty following the long layoff between games.

Missouri looked every bit like a ranked team in the early going. Down 5-3 one minute in, the Tigers used a 14-2 surge over the next seven-plus minutes to go up 17-7. Six players found their way into the scorebook during that stretch.

It didn’t last.

With the score at 19-9, Western Michigan began to creep back in the game. The Broncos went on a 13-5 run to get within 24-22 with 2:08 left in the first half.

The Broncos were aided by a long field-goal drought from Missouri, as the Tigers boasted just a Rosburg dunk as the only made field goal in a stretch of eight minutes, 55 seconds.

Brown finally knocked down a 3-pointer with 2:01 left before intermission to spark a string of seven straight points for the Tigers to close the half. Missouri’s lead was 31-22 at the break.

The first half was a clinic on how not to play basketball. Western Michigan made just 9-of-34 shots (26.5 percent), including an abysmal 2-of-16 mark from beyond the arc (12.5 percent).

“We shot the ball really poorly in the first half,” Western Michigan head coach Steve Hawkins said. “I thought Mizzou did a nice job defensively on us there, too.”

While Missouri did shoot 12-of-23 (52.2 percent) in the half, the Tigers turned the ball over a whopping 11 times and hit just 2-of-7 long-range attempts.

“Our execution was poor,” Haith said. “We couldn’t hold on to the ball early. We got the ball knocked out of our hands.”

Western Michigan continued to put a scare into Missouri in the second half. It began by cutting the deficit to 35-33 on a 3 from Austin Richie with 17:06 left. The Broncos wouldn’t go away, getting within two points three more times. The final instance came on a 3 from Charles Harris with 10:51 remaining to put the score at 47-45.

Shayne Whittington bricked a short baseline jumper on the Broncos’ next possession, missing out on an opportunity to tie it. Missouri responded with a 9-0 surge over the next two-plus minutes — beginning with a Wes Clark 3 — to finally create some separation.

“Every time we got right there, got it cut to two, their big-time players stepped up and hit big-time shots,” Hawkins said. “That sort of kept us at arm’s distance.”

Missouri went up by as many as 12 — at 58-46 — on a jumper from Tony Criswell, but Western Michigan responded with the next six points to make things interesting again.

The Broncos got within 63-58 on a pair of free throws from Brown in the final minute, and later had a 3 rim out in the final 10 seconds that would have cut the lead to two.

Wittington kept up his double-double average with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Brown led the Broncos with 18 points while Connar Tava added 10.

“My pizza will taste just fine here in a little bit. This one we can put behind us because our effort was good,” Hawkins said, alluding to the fact Western Michigan scored just 35 points in a loss to Northwestern in the Broncos’ previous game.

Missouri is 10-0 for just the 10th time in program history and only the third time in the past 32 years. The Tigers are back in action at 4:30 p.m. Saturday against Illinois in the Braggin’ Rights game at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

“Very talented,” Haith said of the Illini. “… We’ll worry about them a little bit later. They’re a good team.”

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