COLUMBIA - The Missouri defense is still a work in progress.
After an exemplary first 30 minutes handed the Tigers a 25-point cushion, a lackluster final 10 put West Virginia within striking distance.
While Missouri (8-0) pulled out an 80-71 victory Thursday night at Mizzou Arena as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge, it's clear there's still plenty of work to be done on the defensive end.
"For 33 minutes we were terrific defensively," Missouri head coach Frank Haith said. "They're an outstanding 3-point shooting team. Our emphasis all week was two-hand closeouts, take away vision. I thought we did an outstanding job with that. They're going to win a lot of ball games in their league, so it was a really good win for us, a good resume-builder."
The Mountaineers (6-3) lit up the scoreboard in their first eight games, averaging 85.1 points per game while hitting 10 3-pointers a night. West Virginia boasted one of the nation's most efficient offenses heading into Thursday's contest, knocking down 49.2 percent of its shots and 46.5 percent of its 3-pointers.
Those numbers dipped to 41.5 and 21 percent, respectively, against Missouri.
"We took horrible shots," said West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins, who remains tied withi Norm Stewart on the all-time wins list with 729. "... We didn't score seemingly for an hour and a half. I'd probably say, "Yeah, we shot ourselves in the foot. Or blew our head off.' Whatever you want to write."
Jordan Clarkson tallied a game-high 25 points, his fourth straight game with 20-plus points. Jabari Brown added 18 points while Earnest Ross had 10.
Juwan Staten scored 16 points to lead the Mountaineers, although his five assists and five turnovers betrayed his season statistics of 60 assists to nine turnovers before Thursday. Gary Browne and Terry Henderson added 14 points while Devin Williams added 10. West Virginia's leading scorer Eron Harris, who entered the contest averaging 20.3 points, was held to just eight.
The Tigers wasted no time taking it to the Mountaineers, jumping out to a 9-0 lead on baskets by four different players. West Virginia didn't get on the scoreboard until the 14:51 mark on a free throw from Gary Browne, and the Mountaineers didn't register their first field goal until Terry Henderson knocked down a 3-pointer with 12:57 left in the opening half. Missouri had built an 11-1 advantage before that trey.
Tony Criswell canned his first 3 of the season to hand the Tigers a 16-4 edge, while Jordan Clarkson later extended the lead to 25-11 on an old-fashioned three-point play.
"It's always good to get a fast start," Clarkson said. "We can't let somebody come in here and hit us in the mouth. We wanted to come out and hit them first and let them know it's our home floor."
West Virginia and Missouri then traded 9-2 runs, giving the Tigers a 36-22 advantage at halftime. The Mountaineers hit just 28 percent of their shots in the first half, including a paltry nine percent from beyond the arc.
"We have a lot of long guys that can really disrupt people's shots," Clarkson said of Missouri's starting backcourt trio that all stand 6-foot-5. "When they're shooting, they're shooting over bigger guys, and that always has an effect on people."
After the Mountaineers opened the second half with a bucket from Devin Williams, Missouri ripped off seven straight points, highlighted by a fastbreak dunk from Clarkson to put the Tigers ahead 43-24. A West Virginia timeout couldn't stop the bleeding, as Ross immediately added a layup off a turnover.
After West Virginia cut the deficit to 53-38 on five straight points from Henderson midway through the second half, a Jabari Brown 3 sparked a 10-0 run that gave Missouri the 25-point lead with 9:43 to play.
That's when West Virginia finally started to play.
The Mountaineers used a 31-13 surge to make a game of it. Remi Debo's putback with 31.3 seconds left made it 76-69, but free throws closed out the win for Missouri.
"West Virginia's got a Hall of Fame coach, they weren't going to quit," Haith said. "They're going to keep playing, keep driving the ball and keep attacking. Part of it was some of the things we were not doing, but you've got to say part of it was West Virginia executing and doing some good things too."
Missouri is back in action against No. 18 UCLA (8-0) at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Mizzou Arena.
"UCLA is as good offensively as anyone in the country," Haith said. "They're a very gifted group of guys and well-coached. We've got our work cut out for us Saturday morning."