With a hand in his face, Missouri freshman forward Jontay Porter casually threw an over-the-head-pass to Jordan Barnett, who finished with a two-handed dunk.
Later in the second half, graduate transfer Kassius Robertson faked out a defender and drilled a three, sending the team’s bench into madness.
The veterans carried the load Friday in the Tigers’ thrilling 90-82 win over St. John’s that put Missouri in the Advocare Invitational championship game.
“I’m exhausted,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said after the game. “We showed a lot of resiliency and toughness.”
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Robertson led Missouri with 17 points, including four three-pointers, while Porter scored 16 and junior Kevin Puryear had 15 points and five rebounds. Barnett, a senior who came into the game with a combined 14 points in his last three games, put up a team-high 19 points and nine rebounds. Junior Jordan Geist had 11 as five Mizzou players scored in double figures for the second straight game.
After a trading leads through the opening minutes, Missouri took a double-digit lead midway through the first half thanks to a 10-0 run that Barnett powered. The St. Louis native scored five straight points and the Tigers led 29-18 with 9:13 left.
Barnett was helped by Puryear, who helped do the dirty work inside while Missouri centers Reed Nikko and Jeremiah Tilmon sat on the bench with foul trouble for most of the game.
St. John’s was led by Shamorie Ponds, who put up a game-high 31 points, giving Cuonzo Martin’s defense fits all afternoon. Whether it was through the lane or beyond the arc, Ponds hit every tough shot he could create.
With the shot clock expiring late in the first half, Ponds hit a three from nearly midcourt in the middle of a 15-3 St. John’s run that erased the big lead Barnett and Puryear helped create. In the closing seconds before halftime, he beat the clock on a layup that cut Missouri’s lead to 42-36.
In the second half, St. John’s took control of the game after senior Bashir Ahmed hit a pair of threes that gave the Red Storm a 58-50 lead with 12:20 remaining. While Martin’s squad kept the game from running away from them, the Tigers had no way to stop Ponds, Ahmed or Marcus LoVett. Ahmed finished with 17 points while LoVett added 14.
That’s when Robertson came in. He came into the game in a shooting slump of his own, but hit three of five Mizzou threes, quashing the St. John’s lead. The Ontario native’s third three of the run tied the score at 69 with six minutes remaining.
Then Barnett and Porter each hit a three, giving Missouri a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. Robertson hit one more three with just under two minutes remaining extending the Tigers’ lead to eight.
“We never really panicked,” Robertson said. “That’s one thing that really impressed me about the young guys. We got a lot of young guys but none of us panicked.”
Missouri was finally able to stop the St. John’s offense in the second half by doing something it hadn’t done all year; play zone. Martin said after the game he’s usually hesitant to play zone defense but thought it was the right call after seeing how the Red Storm were scoring through the lane.
St. John’s players said after the game they weren’t expecting Missouri to go into a zone at all and coach Chris Mullin said he didn’t have the best-equipped lineup to handle it when it did.
“The zone really changed the game for us,” Barnett said.
The Tigers will play on Sunday night in the championship game against either West Virginia or Central Florida. Tipoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. and the game will be shown on ESPN2.
Alex Schiffer: 816-234-4064, @TheSchiffMan