COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- Johnathan Williams III grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds and Earnest Ross scored 17 points to lead Missouri past Gardner-Webb 72-63 on Saturday.
Missouri (4-0) only led by two points at halftime and foul troubles hampered its effort to pull away from the Runnin' Bulldogs, who were picked to finish second in the South Division of the Big South.
The Tigers won their 76th consecutive game at home against a nonconference opponent and their 21st in a row overall at Mizzou Arena.
Naji Hibbert and Jerome Hill both scored 17 points for Gardner-Webb (2-3).
Missouri led 31-29 at the break but amassed 10 fouls in the first 7:47 of the second half. Officials whistled Jabari Brown for a technical with 14:53 remaining after he missed a fastbreak layup and got tangled with a handful of Gardner-Webb players underneath the basket.
The Tigers' bench then received a technical after complaining that no infraction was called against Jordan Clarkson on a missed layup with 11:14 on the clock. Hibbert converted one of the two ensuing free throws to narrow the Runnin' Bulldogs' deficit to 48-45.
Missouri answered with a 14-0 run capped by a 3-point play by Williams with 7:24 remaining to give the team some breathing room the rest of the game. Playing in only his fourth career game, Williams' putback dunk created the loudest applause of the night from the 6,738 in attendance.
A 6-foot-9-inch freshman from Memphis, Tenn., Williams became the first freshman to start a season opener for the Tigers since 2004. He scored seven points on 3-of-10 shooting Saturday, but his rebounding helped Missouri take a 46-29 advantage on the boards and a 46-18 lead in scoring from the paint.
Hibbert, a transfer from Texas A&M, has scored 52 points for Gardner-Webb in his last three games after averaging 3.7 points per game in three seasons with the Aggies. He faced the Tigers five times when the schools met as members of the Big 12.
Missouri scored its first 26 points from the paint before Ross converted the first of two free throws with 2:34 remaining in the opening half. Tony Criswell and Torren Jones added another three combined points from the charity stripe to complete the Tigers' scoring for the opening 20 minutes.
Gardner-Webb scored its first six points from inside the lane but only two of its next 23 came from the paint. The Runnin' Bulldogs used an early 10-0 run to lead 14-10 just 7:20 into the game, but that would be their biggest lead of the afternoon.
The game marked the opening of the Las Vegas Invitational for both teams, who had never faced each other prior to Saturday. Although the matchup had no impact on the outcome of the tournament, both schools will travel to Nevada for games on Thanksgiving.