Every year, as the calendar flips to March and single-elimination basketball tournaments take center stage, “survive and advance” becomes the most oft-repeated mantra in sports. Missouri demonstrated a literal interpretation of the phrase Thursday evening, during its first postseason game in two years.
The Tigers, seeded seventh in the SEC Tournament, led 10-seed Georgia by as many as 12 points in the final eight minutes of play but didn’t make a field goal for the final 6:24. Three times during the final 90 seconds, the Bulldogs had the ball with a chance to tie the game or take the lead, but Missouri held on, winning 73-70 to advance to the tournament quarterfinals. The Tigers will face second-seeded Arkansas Friday at 6 p.m.
Here is our full report on the game, including what we learned.
* It certainly wasn’t pretty, as Missouri fans had to endure the all-too-familiar sight of a Tiger lead evaporating during the second half. Even Dru Smith admitted afterward that “it does get a little tiring” playing in so many close games. But this time of year, the result is all that matters, and the Tigers prevailed.
“There’s going to be runs, teams are going to make runs, it’s going to kind of go back and forth most of the time,” Smith said. “So just understanding that we just have to have one more point at the end. At the end of the day, that’s what we did.”
It took some help from Georgia and a questionable call from the officials for Missouri to wind up with more points. The Tigers used a 14-2 run during the second half to take a 12-point lead with 8:34 to play. A little more than two minutes later, Jeremiah Tilmon made a layup and Missouri still led by 10. Then the offense went ice cold.
Xavier Pinson took, and missed, jumpers on three straight possessions. After the last one, Tilmon got the rebound but couldn’t convert. Georgia struggled to get going on the offensive end itself, but after Mark Smith took a quick, ill-advised corner three, K.D. Johnson knocked down a triple on the other end to cut Missouri’s lead to five. The Tigers then bled the shot clock dry before turning the ball over on two straight possessions. Georgia got a pair of free throws off the first turnover and a transition layup by Toumani Camara after the second. Suddenly, with 3:09 to play, Missouri led by just a point.
Dru Smith noted that the Tigers’ shooting woes coincided with Georgia switching up its defense. He also said the team started trying to kill the clock too early.
“They went to a zone there for a second that I thought threw us off a little bit,” Smith said. “It made us a little stagnant. And we’ve had that problem in the past. But I think that they went to that 2-3 there for a second, and I think that … it just gave us a little pause and we weren’t as aggressive as we had been before.”
After Pinson tried and missed another three, Georgia had its first chance to take the lead since the opening minutes of the second half, but the Tigers got a stop. Missouri then once again dribbled out the majority of the shot clock, its possession ending with the ball in Pinson’s hands about 25 feet from the basket with a few seconds to shoot. Pinson elevated, drew a tap on the elbow from Justin Kier and wildly flailed his arms before shooting. The one-handed shot never came close to the rim, but the officials whistled Kier for a foul. Pinson knocked down all three free throws.
Georgia still wouldn’t go away, however. Georgia point guard Sahvir Wheeler knifed through the Missouri defense for a quick layup, then Pinson got whistled for an offensive foul. Perhaps a make-up call, the foul took a made layup off the board. Smith got whistled for a foul on the other end, sending Camara to the free throw line with a chance to tie the game with less than 20 seconds to play.
In a rare gaffe, Kier stepped into the lane before Camara’s first attempt, resulting in a lane violation. Camara only got one free throw, and he missed it. Georgia was forced to foul Dru Smith, and he made both free throws.
Kier atoned for his lane violation by knocking down a quick three-pointer on the other end of the floor, reducing Missouri’s lead to a point once again. Georgia quickly fouled Pinson, who cooly made both free throws. That gave Georgia the chance to tie the game with 6.5 seconds left. Missouri opted not to foul, but the Tigers played solid defense, forcing P.J. Horne to pump-fake and put the ball on the deck before attempting an off-balance shot, which never came close to going in.
Despite mustering just nine points in the final six minutes, Missouri improved to 7-1 this season in games decided by five points or less.
“Simply put, we are who we are,” Cuonzo Martin said after the game. “We’re going to make mistakes here, turn it over, bad shot here, foul there. We’ve played, what, 24 games, and that’s who we are. So we just have to find a way to win the game at this point. I mean, I’d love to give you six or seven different things, but it’s probably the same. Man, you can look at my notes from two weeks ago, it’s probably the same answers. But just find a way to win the game.”
* One of the primary reasons Missouri built up enough cushion to withstand its late collapse was the play of Kobe Brown. Brown had the best game of his young career during Missouri’s first matchup against Georgia this season, scoring 21 points in Athens with Tilmon absent.
Brown wasn’t much of a factor during the first half Thursday, however. The sophomore scored just four points on 2-4 shooting during the first 20 minutes. During halftime, he said, the coaching staff challenged him to be more assertive.
“I knew I had more to give coming into the second half,” Brown said. “I was talking to the coaches, all the coaches were telling me, yeah, I know you have more. You’re doing good, but I know you have more. And I was like, yeah, I felt like I did, so I just came out and tried to show more and give more.”
Brown scored the first basket after the break for Missouri. The next two times he touched the ball, his defender sagged into the lane, daring Brown to shoot from the top of the key. Both times, he did, and the three-pointers went in. Brown finished the second half with 12 points.
“They were big,” Brown said of his made threes. “Seeing those go in, it helped boost our confidence and our momentum a lot.”
Martin said the difference in Brown’s play between the first and second halves didn’t have anything to do with the coaching staff calling plays for him or how Georgia defended him. It was just a matter of being aggressive, taking it upon himself to score. He hopes to see more of that from Brown as his first career college postseason progresses.
“He’s a different player when he plays with an edge,” Martin said of Brown. “He’s driving the ball, he’s assertive. It’s not so much you calling plays for him. Just being aggressive. You can tell it’s going to be one of those games for him, meaning good, when he’s attacking the offensive glass, he’s being strong, he’s driving the ball at the rim.”
* The other Missouri player who turned it around during the second half was Dru Smith. Smith, who earlier in the week was named to the all-SEC first team and all-defense team, made just two of nine field goals during the first 20 minutes. He entered halftime with four points.
Smith said he felt like he was getting decent looks in the first half, he just couldn’t get them to drop. Once the shots started falling, Missouri benefited. Smith scored 10 points during the Tigers’ 14-2 run: two three-pointers, a layup, and a patented pivoting leaner from about eight feet. Smith finished the game with 16 points, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals, all while guarding Wheeler on the defensive end.
“I felt like I was taking good shots, it was just, they were rattling in and rattling out, I was missing layups,” Smith said. “It was ugly for me there in the first half. But yeah, I think just settling in. I think as a team we were able to settle in there in the second half and just play a little bit better basketball.”
* While Pinson’s final stat line — 17 points on 4-12 shooting, two assists and three turnovers — doesn’t paint the picture of an overly efficient performance, he looked more aggressive in driving the ball on the offensive end and staying in front of his man on defense, the two things Martin has asked to see more of from him lately. He also put the ball through the basket during a few key moments for Missouri.
The first game as the first half wound down. Georgia led by four points with the ball and called a timeout with 16 seconds left to try to add to its lead. Instead, Brown came up with a steal and found Pinson for a three-point attempt from the right corner. The shot splashed through the net as the buzzer sounded.
“I thought it gave us definitely a little good burst of momentum there,” Dru Smith said of Pinson’s three. “… Definitely was big for us to obviously cut the lead down a little bit. We were able to come out down only one, and just also to get our momentum, get our spirits up and everything going into that second half.”
Pinson also came up clutch at the free throw line to help Missouri maintain its late lead. He made all five of his free throws during the game’s final two minutes, and six of seven from the line on the game.
* Missouri’s struggling offense got a big boost from its defense. The Tigers forced 13 Georgia turnovers, with eight of those coming via steals. Those takeaways led to 19 points. In a game during which the two teams shot an identical 26-60 from the floor, with Georgia actually making one more three-pointer than Missouri, those easy scoring opportunities loomed large.
“It’s always important for us to get out and run in transition, I think, and live-ball turnovers are usually the easiest way to do it,” Dru Smith said. “So it’s definitely good that we were able to capitalize on those, and hopefully we can continue that.”
Particularly in the first half, Missouri’s ability to turn defensive stops into transition baskets kept the team afloat. Martin knew going in that the team wouldn’t be able to completely slow down Wheeler, who finished with 14 points and an SEC Tournament record 13 assists, but he believed Missouri would be able to use its length advantage to disrupt Georgia’s passing lanes and take the ball away.
“It’s just being active, being aggressive,” Martin said. “… The key for our guys, when (Wheeler) gets to the rim, be big, make him go over the top of you and just have active hands.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Yet again, Missouri let a double-digit lead evaporate in the second half. It didn’t result in a loss Thursday, but we’ve seen a couple instances this season when failing to maintain control has cost the Tigers, including the regular-season meeting against Georgia. During the final 6:24, Missouri shot 0-6 from the field and turned the ball over four times. The team can’t expect to get away with that kind of execution during crunch time any more this season considering it will only be facing NCAA Tournament-caliber competition from here on out.
STAR OF THE GAME: Brown played well and Pinson came through in some important moments, but we’re giving this one to Dru Smith. It wasn’t Smith’s most efficient shooting night, especially by his standards, but he still managed to score 16 points. Meanwhile, he grabbed a team-high eight rebounds and his two assists and three steals also each tied for the most on the team. He did all that while playing 38 minutes and guarding Wheeler on the defensive end.
WHAT IT MEANS: Missouri has already matched its deepest SEC Tournament run in the program’s nine years in the league. The Tigers have advanced to the league tournament quarterfinals twice before, in 2013 and 2014, but never beyond. Friday will bring a rubber match against a red-hot Arkansas team. Missouri beat Arkansas in Fayetteville in early January when the Razorbacks were without forward Justin Smith, then Arkansas got revenge in Columbia when Missouri didn’t have Tilmon.
From an NCAA Tournament standpoint, Missouri likely didn’t help its seeding by beating Georgia, but the Tigers have pretty much assured that they won’t drop beneath wherever the selection committee had them at the end of the regular season. That could mean they will avoid winding up as an 8 or 9 seed, and thus a potential second-round date with a No.1 seed.
QUOTABLE: “When you’re at this type of venue, chess match, both teams come out, kind of see how things are going, guys are missing at the rim, the anxiety — and I say that in a good way — all that goes with one and done (play), so to speak, and you have all that. Then once guys settled in in the second half, same way like those guys, they settled in in the second half, it’s a different basketball game. And I’d like to think we’ll be better tomorrow because we’ve had a taste of it. Now it’s just basketball.” — Cuonzo Martin