COLUMBIA, Mo. • As the clock counted down, Missouri coach Kim Anderson walked the length of the Tigers’ bench and shook hands with every coach and player. Finally, they had something to celebrate.
It had been 47 days since the Tigers last savored a victory. Since then, Anderson’s team had lost 13 consecutive games, a Mizzou record for basketball futility.
But as Keith Shamburger dribbled out the final seconds of Tuesday’s 64-52 win over depleted Florida on Norm Stewart Court, the Mizzou misery was finally over.
“It (stinks) losing,” freshman guard Namon Wright said after scoring a career-high 28 points. “But we just try our best to stay together and keep playing hard every game. We knew we were going to get one eventually.”
The Tigers (8-20, 2-13 Southeastern Conference) hadn’t won since beating Louisiana State in overtime on Jan. 8, the team’s SEC opener. In between wins, Mizzou discovered new ways to lose each time the ball was tipped. There were blowouts. There was heartbreak. There were suspensions. There were injuries.
But three days after what might have been the Tigers’ least inspired effort of the season — Saturday’s 23-point loss at Vanderbilt — Missouri discovered a shooting star.
Wright’s 28 points were the most by a Missouri player this season and the most by a Missouri freshman in 15 years. The guard from Los Angeles brought too much firepower for the Gators (13-15, 6-9), who were without guard Michael Frazier III, out with an ankle injury, and forward Dorian Finney-Smith, serving an indefinite suspension. Mizzou continues to play without Wes Clark, its No. 2 scorer who was lost for the season Feb. 12 (dislocated elbow).
Wright shot 10 of 13 and six of eight from 3-point range, one of the most prolific performances from a freshman in team history.
Only two Mizzou freshmen have broken the 30-point mark: Derrick Chievous, with 32 points against Arizona in 1984, and Kareem Rush, with 31 against Texas Tech in 2000.
“I didn’t really know if it was going to be my night or not,” Wright said. “I just felt confident today. We were having fun out there.”
Tuesday was different. With Mizzou Arena half full at 7,631, Anderson said he could sense that maybe their fortunes were about to change. It didn’t hurt that Wright couldn’t miss from the opening tip — even on a botched play on Missouri’s opening possession.
“Completely messed up the first play of the game,” Anderson said. “Wasn’t even close to what we wanted to do.”
Wright salvaged the series with a jumper that just beat the shot clock. It was that kind of night for the freshman, who led all scorers with 12 points in the first half. Wright began the second half right where he left off, knocking down his first three jumpers. His pair of free throws 3:45 into the half put the Tigers ahead 37-35 and gave him a career-high 22 points. The lead lasted all of 13 seconds. Alex Murphy put the Gators back in front with a 3-pointer on the next possession.
Florida’s lead grew to six before the Tigers began their comeback. Wright’s fifth 3-pointer got the Tigers within three. Then it was Montaque Gill-Caesar’s turn. The freshman guard inched the Tigers closer with a jump hook, then put MU ahead 46-45 with a pair of free throws with 8:14 left.
As the Gators continued to throw away possessions — they went 7:04 between field goals in the second half — Mizzou added to its lead, first with a Keith Shamburger to Jakeenan Gant lob dunk, then Gill-Caesar’s pull-up jumper.
MU gained complete control with a 20-3 run over 11:25 as the Gators endured a one-for-12 shooting slump down the stretch.
The Tigers didn’t forget about Wright. With 4:11 left, he zipped around a screen at the top of the key and knocked down his sixth 3-pointer, good for a 53-47 lead and his 28th point, the most by a Missouri player this season. Johnathan Williams III had the previous high with 27 against Mississippi State on Feb. 14.
The Gators had no semblance of offense down the stretch and shot just six of 18 in the second half and just nine of 23 overall from the free throw line. Freshman Devin Robinson led the Gators with 14 points. No one struggled more than point guard Kasey Hill, who shot one of eight from the foul line and was called for a costly technical foul with 3:09 left. From there, the Tigers sank 11 of 13 free throws to push the lead to double digits.