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For a while, it felt like the magic was there. It was palpable.
Mizzou Arena was as loud as it had been all season. Missouri men's basketball was one stop and one basket away from erasing a season's worth of frustrations with an upset of No. 1 overall Auburn on Tuesday night.
Hold up for a moment: How in the world was Missouri, a team that lost to Arkansas by 44, even in the game against top-ranked Auburn?
Missouri played harder Tuesday than it had all season long, and its inspired effort in a near-shocker ultimately resulted in a 55-54 loss before a crowd of 10,004.
Auburn outmuscled the host Tigers in the final two minutes to sneak out of Columbia victorious.
"We've just got to find a way to win the game," Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said.
After completing a conventional three-point play to put Auburn ahead 53-51 with 1:27 remaining, K.D. Johnson capitalized on a Missouri turnover with a layup to give Auburn a four-point lead with 47 seconds left. Just 12 seconds later, Missouri's Javon Pickett countered with a clutch 3-pointer to pull back within a point.
Martin could have called for Missouri to foul on the ensuing possession, forcing Auburn to convert free throws. Instead, Martin opted to trust his team to get a stop. After all, Missouri had held Auburn to just 30% shooting on the night.
Auburn missed a short floater at the end of the shot clock with five seconds left in regulation but managed to corral an offensive rebound before the ball got loose and the final seconds ticked off.
Missouri was one play away. The magic just ran out.
Pickett led Missouri with 17 points. Trevon Brazile provided timely post defense. Kobe Brown grabbed 11 rebounds and dished three assists.
Here is how Missouri was even in the game Tuesday:
Energized home team
The Tiger squads were tied at halftime at 31. Missouri held a lead for most of the first half, using the crowd energy and clearly playing with more intensity.
Missouri was winning 50/50 balls, something it didn't do consistently in previous games.
The crowd jeered Auburn coach Bruce Pearl and the visiting Tigers.
"I think when we're at that level, we have a chance to be as good as anyone in America," Martin said. "I think our fans need to understand the impact of being present helps. You have a chance to be as good as anyone in America."
Lots of campus figures were on hand to see Missouri take on the top team in the nation.
Head football coach Eli Drinkwitz, head women's basketball coach Robin Pingeton and the biggest student section all season came to Mizzou Arena. Pingeton's team, which upset No. 1 South Carolina in December, also was in tow.
Tuesday was Missouri's 23rd game all-time against a No. 1 overall team, now holding a 4-19 record against such teams. Three of those four wins occurred in Columbia.
The last time MU hosted the top team was Jan. 29, 2015, a 69-53 loss to Kentucky.
"They are the No. 1 team in the country, but that means you're good enough," Martin said. "You've got to take whatever goes with that. I thought we played hard, I thought we played well."
Pickett has his best game of the year
Missouri's lone senior took charge, recording double figures for the sixth straight game.
He had perhaps his best game of the season Tuesday. Pickett played tough, even when he fell into foul trouble.
Pickett was aggressive getting to the basket, even with Auburn's post players having the size advantage. He drove and hit teardrop after teardrop, and knew when to go off the glass.
It was Pickett's experience at work, and the senior knew what to look for and how to attack. He was reading the defense and knew how to attack Auburn's length, ignoring how much of a mismatch it was.
"They have tremendous length," Pickett said after the game. "We knew they would go for pump fakes. Sometimes they stayed down, then the floater is going to be there. Really, just trying to read them."
When Missouri needed its most experienced player the most, he was there.
Pickett left the game with foul trouble but came back in and hit the 3-pointer that made it a one-point game with 35 seconds left.
Post defense shows out
Brazile is a cornerstone for Missouri's future.
After missing most of the second half against Alabama, Brazile held his own against the post players on the nation's best team.
Auburn was struggling from the floor. At one point, it was 15 of 50 shooting.
Ronnie DeGray also played well for Missouri defending in the post, even as Auburn had the size advantage. The host Tigers held Auburn star Jabari Smith to five points on 2 of 15 shooting from the field.
Martin credited his post players for executing the game plan.
"Trevon (Brazile) did a tremendous job defending him, using his length," Martin said. "Just really taking away the one or two things he does well, and our guys did a tremendous job of that."
Auburn outscored Missouri 26-22 in the post, but Brazile, DeGray and Brown were the reasons the Tigers weren't blown away by a bigger and stronger team.
Auburn finished the game shooting 30% from the floor at 21 of 70. The post defense was stout, but the one fatal flaw came on the rebounding end.
Missouri was outrebounded by double digits for the second straight contest — this time 48-38 — which led to seven second-chance points for Auburn and nearly 20 fewer field-goal attempts for MU. Either could have provided the difference in the game.
The makings of an upset were there: the crowd, the team and the pretense.
Missouri was one stop and one basket away.
"We always knew we had the talent," Missouri guard Boogie Coleman said. "It was just about bringing the energy and the effort and jelling together. That was going to put it all together. Now, we're there.
"Now, we've got to take another step and complete the games."
Chris Kwiecinski is the sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune, overseeing University of Missouri and Boone County sports coverage. Follow him on Twitter @OchoK_ and contact him at CKwiecinsk@gannett.com or 435-414-3261.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Mizzou basketball had a chance to upset Auburn. Here are 3 reasons why