Column: Despite lights-out first half, Barnett goes overlooked late as Missouri nearly gives away lead again

Barnett followed a game-leading first half with a silent second, repeating a pattern that might correlate to Mizzou’s poor finishes.

Jordan Barnett in a game last season.

Maybe 21 is Missouri’s magic number.

It sure seemed like it Tuesday night at Mizzou Arena. Helped by 15 points from senior Jordan Barnett, the Tigers’ 62-58 victory over Texas A&M was their third in SEC play against a team ranked No. 21 this season.

Oh yeah, and Barnett wears jersey No. 21.

The vintage kind of production Mizzou got from him at certain points Tuesday was something it hadn’t seen in a long time. The veteran came into the game 8 for his last 26 from the field over the last three games and 13-for-43 (30 percent) in the last five.

That wasn’t the tale tonight — especially when he was desperately needed early on. After the Tigers only tagged 4 points in the first 7:38, Barnett helped answer the Aggies with a game-leading 11-point first half that included 4-for-5 shooting and a 3-for-4 mark beyond the arc. His efficiency bolstered a 16-4 stretch that settled the slow start and turned the tide. Mizzou led 29-21 into the break.

“What I liked is that [Barnett] tried to put the ball on the floor,” head coach Cuonzo Martin said. “He tried to make plays at the rim and he posted up. That’s the thing that we need from him: making plays off the dribble.”

He fanned the fire when Mizzou had another characteristic slump to start the second half. Not too long after A&M had the Tiger lead sliced to 4, Barnett capped a brief burst with a baseline fadeaway that bumped the advantage to 13, a game high at that point.

“He adds another element to our offense when he does those things,” Martin said.

While Missouri has been accelerating into what has been its most impressive stretch of basketball in years during the last couple of weeks, Barnett has been slowing down. Inversely, some of his best performances during conference play have been in games where it didn’t matter how many points he scored. He totaled 28 in a heartbreaking loss to Florida and 19 on 70 percent shooting in a beatdown at the hands of Auburn.

These self-contradictory numbers are undoubtedly confusing, but tonight might have manifested a perfect demonstration of the reason behind them. Barnett tallied just 4 points in the second half, shooting 2 for 8 from the field and 0 for 4 from deep. Missouri’s lead promptly faded as much as A&M’s roster has the last two days. The Aggies chopped it from 14 to 1 late while Barnett’s role diminished. His teammates didn’t find find him streaking on the weak side several times in transition, and when the ball did get to his hands, the shots didn’t fall.

“I thought Barnett shot a couple quick ones there,” Martin said.

That’s not an unusual trend. In that Florida game, Missouri blew a double-digit lead in the second half while Barnett went the last 10 minutes without a point. Against Auburn, Mizzou was down by 1. Then Barnett went the last 14:30 without a point and the game devolved into an 18-point laugher.

The results often haven’t been there for Barnett in the second half, but his chances to produce have been far more limited than early in games. Meanwhile, it’s junior Jordan Geist who has been given the ball to break frustrating SEC presses and to be a centerpiece of three final plays in games Mizzou was tied in or trailing by one possession.

He’s come up empty all three times.

Mizzou has been searching for an answer to its propensity for coughing up late leads. Barnett is the kind of senior leader who forgets the bad and remembers the good. That’s why teams go to players like him in crunch time situations. It should add up.

“[Barnett] has a very short memory; if he misses it, he’s forgotten about it before it hits the rim,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said last month after Missouri bested the Volunteers.

And in the final minutes of Tuesday night’s competition, when Missouri needed several defensive sequences to protect its precarious lead, Barnett showed off his versatility and made the overlooked play of the game. As A&M ran its offense to set up what would’ve been a go-ahead 3, he hedged an off-ball screen and extended a hand to barely swipe the pass out of bounds. Missouri was able to reset its defense, and the possession ultimately ended with a shot clock violation.

So what if Mizzou gave Barnett more chances to work at the other end of the floor in tight scenarios? There’s not much of a sample size to tell what would happen, but not many would venture to not trust his steady hand, calming presence and career’s worth of experience.

And as Missouri witnessed early on Tuesday night, No. 21’s got a pretty smooth stroke, too.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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