BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
With his team down 10 at home to visiting Arkansas with just 5:07 left Tuesday night, Tigers head coach Dennis Gates called timeout and got ready to impart some words of wisdom to his team.
It turned out that he didn’t need to do so as his players put forth their own words in the huddle.
“It was going to be the message that I heard them telling each other,” Gates said. “They said ‘don’t panic, don’t blink, we’ll be okay. They gave us their best shot. We haven’t given them our best shot.’
“And I thought we were able to do that…bunt, hit singles. We didn’t try to hit home runs and with help of our fans, we got back into the game.”
The result was a 22-9 run to end the game that handed Missouri a 79-76 win over Arkansas before a crowd of 14,448 fans at Missouri Arena.
“We didn’t blink,” Gates said. “That is our philosophy – don’t blink. We stayed focus on the game and I truly believe. We were down seven or six points and out guys just kept encouraging each other. It’s usually the words said and our guys said some powerful words.”
It was the fourth straight loss for Arkansas (12-6, 1-5), who had won six straight games over Missouri (14-4, 3-3), a squad that had lost two straight and three of its last four contests.
Gates, in his first season at Missouri after coaching at Cleveland State, knew it was going to be two teams leaving it all out on the floor to get a win, which Arkansas grabbed in the first match up with a 74-68 victory in Fayetteville on Jan. 4.
“I just knew that both teams were in desperation for a win,” Gates said. “They were on a three-game losing streak, we was on a two-game losing streak. You want to be able to split when you have home and away games and we needed this game.”
Gates noted that his team works in practice on the exact situation it faced on Wednesday night.
“Our guys said, ‘hey, it’s a five-minute game and we practice how we do it throughout the year in our practice sessions.’ At the end of practice, we try to set up situations and scenarios. Being down in the last five minutes is a scenario. It’s real. Our guys constantly chattered about that to each other. When you can have a group of guys that understand time and situation, we’re good and that was great.”
The game lasted two hours and 39 minutes because 55 fouls were called and 66 free throws taken between the two teams.
“We told our guys what it was going to be like and it was going to be a very physical game,” Gates said. “I thought the game, the referees did a great job of making sure that nothing got out of hand. I thought Arkansas did a great job of giving their very best. Sometimes you have got to respond and our players responded by giving their very best, but also showing toughness.”
Missouri hit 30 of its 40 free throws, including its final eight charity tosses, while Arkansas was 23 of 26 from the line.
The Tigers were 21 of 28 after halftime while the Razorbacks were 12 of 14, including two by Makhi Mitchell with 1:03 left that put Arkansas up 71-69.
“It was more important that we made more free throws than they shot,” Gates said. “That it the kind of game I wanted, but I don’t think we had our previous two games because we didn’t get to the foul line enough. Tonight, I think that kind of makes up for it, whatever foul shots we didn’t take before, I think we got tonight.”
Missouri will host No. 4 Alabama Saturday while Ole Miss will visit Arkansas in a 11 a.m. game that morning.
“We have got the number one team in country coming into town,” Gates said. “They are playing great basketball and I truly believe they are the No. 1 team in the country. We have got to regroup, debrief and obviously prepare.”
Gates expects another great crowd to face Alabama (16-2, 6-0), just ahead of Texas A&M (13-5, 5-0) in the SEC race.
“You credit I built, but it’s we built – I say our former players and our entire city,” Gates said. “They are sacrificing their time to be here and that’s important when you are at the infant stages off your program. It is very important yo have consistency and our crowd has been consistent.”