How Mizzou basketball’s guard-heavy lineup wrestled away OT victory at Wichita State

WICHITA, Kan. — Three minutes into the second half and Charles Koch Arena was about to burst. Wichita State had seized control with a 10-0 surge, prompting a 30-second timeout from Missouri coach Dennis Gates.

In their first road game, in their first contest against a credible Division I opponent — no offense to the scrappy Southern Indiana Screaming Eagles — the Tigers could have panicked, could have collapsed.

Instead, they barely flinched.

As Gates gathered his players for the quick timeout, senior guard Tre Gomillion hopped off the bench, held out his hands just above his waist, spread his fingers wide and pressed down — the international sign for: Settle down, fellas.

Time and time again Tuesday night, the undermanned Tigers let Wichita State’s best shots glance off their cheeks and retaliated with series of body blows, first in regulation, then in overtime. Mizzou stormed back from a 10-point deficit with five minutes left and outlasted the Shockers in OT 88-84.

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“I think that was one of the best games I’ve been a part of in a long time,” Gates said. “And to be able to come out what a victory it says a lot.”

Without his lethal bench scorer, Gates went small late, playing his three point guards on the floor together for long stretches. Their poise and experience proved invaluable in the Tigers’ eighth straight victory — and first away from home.

“We got a bunch of older guys on this team,” said one of those point guards, 23-year-old veteran Sean East II. “So everybody’s kind of been in this situation. Just us combining all our personalities and all our experience we just stay connected, never got down on ourselves. Coach Gates always says, ‘Don’t blink.’ And we just didn’t blink and just kept fighting.”

“I was impressed mostly when we were in dead-ball timeouts,” Gates said. “The amount of conversation that our guys had, or more importantly the amount of suggestions that they gave me as a head coach… it really makes it a lot (easier) to coach these guys in these moments because they’re locked in to every detail and they’re constantly reminding each other, reminding the staff. That’s the security that we need as coaches to allow players to make plays for us. I put them in situations, but they executed it.”

Gates stuck with the same five players late in regulation and throughout overtime, going small with point guards East, Gomillion and Nick Honor, plus shooting guard D’Moi Hodge and forward Noah Carter. Those five might be new to each other — only former Cleveland State teammates Gomillion and Hodge had played on the same team prior to this season — but tight road games are nothing new for this core. Those five had combined to play in 410 Division I games before Tuesday’s tip-off.

Gates credited Gomillion with suggesting several defensive adjustments late in the game, including the diamond press the Tigers used to initiate transition points in crunch time. Mizzou scored 29 points off Wichita State’s 20 turnovers.

“I am not afraid to say the players are leading,” Gates said. “And when you have leading players, you have a team that can go in the right direction.”

It’s why Gates didn’t sweat taking his team on the road for the first time this season … or when the Shockers unleashed a 16-0 run early in the second half … or when Mizzou fell behind 66-56 with 5:15 left in regulation. That’s when the Tigers clawed back, first with an 8-2 run, then an 8-0 burst.

Mizzou (8-0) got within two points with two minutes left, on Carter’s 3-pointer and East’s drive through the lane, then tied it on Carter’s layup. His free throw put the Tigers in front with 1:56 left.

Wichita State’s Gus Okafor answered with a 3-pointer, soon answered by East’s jumper on the other end. The Shockers (4-3) missed three of four free throws on the next two possessions, setting up a Mizzou possession to take the lead. With nine seconds left, Honor found Hodge along the baseline where he drew a foul but could only split his free throws to even the score.

WSU’s Craig Porter Jr. missed the potential game-winning floater, and Gomillion’s turnaround jumper at the buzzer just missed, sending the game into OT.

“D’Moi Hodge wanted that free throw back so bad,” Gates said.

In overtime, it was all Mizzou — and the same five guys. Watching from the sideline was Kobe Brown, the team’s preseason All-SEC forward, who struggled with early fouls and relentless double teams, along with guard Isiaih Mosley, who stayed on the bench all night.

In OT, Carter scored six of MU’s 13 points as the Shockers struggled to close the gap, missing four more free throws in the extra session. East drilled four free throws in the final 25 seconds to all but preserve the win.

Fourteen of Carter’s game-high 20 points came after the five-minute mark in regulation, while 12 of East’s 17 points came during the same stretch.

“We just battled,” Carter said. “I think it all comes down to our chemistry, everything that we do as a team. We are so close and bonded together.”

Then there are the point guards. Last year, the absence of steady point guard play was Mizzou’s costly undoing — and might have been the most glaring roster issue that triggered the offseason regime change from Cuonzo Martin to Gates.

Now, it’s a position of luxury: East, Honor and Gomillion combined for 27 points, eight assists, 10 steals and just four turnovers.

“Man, we got a quick team,” Carter said. “Our pressure defensively in the frontcourt and the backcourt, just the amount of energy the opposing team has to use to get the ball across and get into their offense, it really wears them down. I think it really came through for us. When you have guards like that who can handle the ball and get us in our offense, it’s all positive.”

The Tigers headed west Tuesday after seven straight home wins against low- and mid-major conference opponents, barely challenged by one of the nation’s weakest schedules through the season’s first three weeks. That changed with their visit to Koch Arena, home of what’s been one of the nation’s most successful programs outside of the six major conferences. A decade removed from their improbable run to the Final Four — the 2013 banner waves in the rafters alongside 14 conference championship editions — the Shockers aren’t expected to challenge in the American Athletic Conference this season, but they nearly defended “The Roundhouse” from Tuesday’s SEC invaders.

It helped their cause that outside of Hodge the Tigers couldn’t shoot from outside. A cold front swept through southern Kansas as the sun went down Tuesday, and Mizzou’s shooting followed the weather. The Tigers shot just 7 of 33 from 3-point range with Hodge accounting for four of the seven.

The Tigers clearly missed Mosley’s ability to create his own shot from anywhere on the floor. The senior transfer wasn’t on the court for pregame warm-ups and didn’t emerge from the locker room to join teammates on the bench until shortly before tip-off. He appeared to be in good spirits at the end of the bench alongside the team’s walk-ons. Gates declined to elaborate on Mosley’s status but made clear he wasn’t injured or being disciplined.

“Isiaih is just working through some personal things, and I want to give him privacy at this moment,” Gates said. “But there’s nothing behavioral, there’s nothing from a standpoint of anything else or an injury. … Nothing like that has taken place. It’s just I’ve got to give him his space and credit for what he’s doing and understand that right now. It’s just a privacy matter. And I want him to stay connected, which he will. He was coaching on the bench tonight, which was beautiful to see.”

Brown’s reduced minutes were strictly game related. He played only five minutes in the first half before picking up his second foul then struggled to shake loose from WSU’s extra defensive attention. He finished with a season-low six points in 19 minutes.

A year ago, the Tigers imploded when Brown wasn’t at his best. Under Gates’ remade roster, with all those point guards directing traffic, depth has become a sudden indulgence, especially on the road.

“We got three quarterbacks,” East said, “that are all pretty good.”

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