Missouri 64, Nebraska 63
Behind 11 second-half points from Watkins, a season and career high, the Tigers fought back from an 11-point deficit with under five minutes remaining to defeat Nebraska 64-63.
Junior guard Thomas Gardner, who entered the game second in the Big 12 scoring race with a 19.8 point average, paced Missouri (12-15, 5-11) with 23 points, including 11 points in a two-minute outburst in the game's final minutes.
"We've needed some contributions from our bench," said Watkins, who raised his record to 2-4 as the Tigers' temporary head coach after Quin Snyder's sudden resignation.
Watkins said he took no special pleasure in knowing his son helped lead the team to a victory it was almost desperate to acquire. The same might not be said for the younger Watkins, though.
"When you're in the heat of battle, that's the last thing on your mind," said Melvin Watkins. "I'm sure he'll remind me tonight, though."
With the win, Missouri avoided a last-place Big 12 finish, earning an 11th seed in the upcoming conference tournament. Nebraska (17-12, 7-9) is the No. 6 seed. The teams meet again Thursday in the Big 12 conference tournament in Dallas.
Nebraska coach Barry Collier said his team missed a chance to close out the Tigers after taking a big lead because they got away from pushing the ball inside, where they had been having success with 6-11 center Aleks Maric.
"Gardner was too tough for us," Collier siad. "Then, we didn't stick with our plan to go inside as much, and I think we contributed to our own demise."
Missouri finished one game ahead of Baylor in the conference standings. A loss would have left the Tigers with the same conference record as Baylor, which by virtue of a 26-point thrashing of Missouri earlier this year would have won the tiebreaker and put Missouri in the Big 12 cellar for the first time in the conference's 10-year history.
"Nothing against Baylor, but being in last place behind Baylor is kind of embarrassing," Gardner said. Senior Kevin Young called Watkins the game MVP.
"That's my hero," said Young, who with senior guard Jimmy McKinney played his final home game in Columbia. "His 11 points felt like 200 points."
Wes Wilkinson led Nebraska (17-12, 7-9) with 17 points. Center Aleks Maric added 16 points, with guard Jamel White contributing 14. Gardner's driving left hand layup put Missouri on top 62-61 with 1:06 remaining. After Nebraska's Jason Dourisseau hit two free throws to put the Cornhuskers back up by one,Missouri missed two shots on its end and then fouled Nebraska on the ensuing inbound play. But the Huskers' Wes Wilkinson missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and the chance to pad the lead. The Tigers responded by working the ball inside to forward Marshall Brown, who after hesitating, converted a short jump shot to give Missouri the one-point lead with 3.3 seconds remaining.
Brown was the fourth option in a three-man play, Young said in the locker room. Missouri had a chance to add to its lead in the final seconds after Nebraska's Bronson Schliep threw a full-court baseball pass out of bounds from under his basket. But Brown missed his own front end of the one-and-one, giving Nebraska one final shot. Only when Dourisseau narrowly missed a half-court runner at the buzzer could the announced crowd of 9,388 finally savor the victory.
The home victory capped a trying season for Missouri, including the resignation by Snyder a day after he vowed to reporters he would finish the season, his seventh in Columbia. Snyder quit after a string of six consecutive double-digit losses, the final one to Baylor. After an emotional home victory over Kansas State two days later under interim coach Watkins, the Tigers lost four more games before Sunday's contest.
Watkins, a former head coach at Charlotte and Texas A&M was elevated from Snyder's top assistant after his boss quit. He has said he wants to continue coaching Missouri next year. He said he told his son to play more aggressively.
"I threatened to take away his car keys," the Missouri coach said.