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Missouri survives horrid performance, defeats Emporia State, 67-62

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A cake walk turned into a dogfight at Mizzou Arena.

NCAA Basketball: Emporia State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Mizzou (3-1) almost lost to a Division II opponent.

Fans at Mizzou Arena on Monday night got a painful reminder that despite making improvements, this Tiger team can still play pretty badly. Yes, the Tigers were once again without Michael Porter Jr., but that doesn’t completely excuse how they performed while defeating Emporia State (2-3) by a score of 67-62.

Jeremiah Tilmon posted a line of 13 points, five rebounds and three blocks and led the Tigers’ escape. Jontay Porter had 11 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.

The Hornets actually took the lead against Mizzou. Three times. The deficit grew as large as seven points early in the second half.

The Tigers shot only 39.7 percent, committed 17 turnovers and missed more free throws (15) than ESU attempted (12). “I would say so,” Kevin Puryear said on this being a wake-up call for the team. “We definitely learned our lesson tonight for sure.”

When the 3-point shot isn’t falling, Missouri’s offense looks terrible. The Tigers went 2-for-20 from deep tonight. Mizzou wasn’t just barely missing those shots, either. The Tigers were struggling to make contact with the rim at times.

“I think it’s a combination,” Puryear responded when asked whether he felt the issue was shot selection or luck. “I think we missed quite a bit of open threes today. We have a bunch of good shooters on the perimeter so I’m not too concerned. I know we have confident shooters and those shots are gonna fall.”

Mizzou finished the first half shooting only 37 percent from the field and had already turned the ball over 10 times. Emporia State surrendered rebounds to ensure that it got back on defense. The strategy worked.

“I don’t know if I’d say we were frustrated,” Reed Nikko said. “Obviously we had some difficulties early on, came out a little bit flat. I think frustrated is probably not the best word. We just had to come back in the second half with more energy, stepping it up and wanting it more.”

Nikko was strong for the Tigers as he scored eight points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked a shot in only 10 minutes. Down the stretch he finished two big baskets through fouls.

After an injury plagued freshman year, Nikko has emerged as the third big in the rotation through four games. “Probably the best I’ve felt since junior year of high school,” Nikko said. “I feel great, huge credit to our trainers and our medical staff for getting me there.”

The Hornets trailed for most of the first 20 minutes, but three straight 3-pointers fueled a 12-2 run that gave them a 26-23 lead. After they tied the game at 23, Missouri had a chance to retake the lead on a 3-on-1 fast break.

Kassius Robertson lost the ball and the Hornets capitalized on the error with an and-1 dunk by Stephaun Limuel. The play seemed to alert the Tigers, as they went on a small 5-2 run to make it a tie game at half.

The Hornets didn’t fade away in the second half. They played fired up and took a 39-32 lead. Missouri still couldn’t find its shot and played just as sloppily as it had before the intermission.

Cullen VanLeer drained a three from the right corner, however, and Porter slammed home a thunderous put-back to cut the lead down to two points. The slam brought the crowd to its feet, the energy was back in the building, and the Tigers were locked in.

ESU would make a late charge, but a series of Robertson free throws would put the game away.

Missouri will travel to Orlando on Thursday for the eight-team 2017 AdvoCare Invitational. The Tigers will open the tournament against Long Beach State. Tipoff is set for 10:30 a.m. CT. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.

“Talented team, athletic guys,” Cuonzo Martin said. “Runners, jumpers, they make shots, they make plays, toughness, don’t lack confidence at all. They’ll press you, zone you, do a lot of different things, so we’ll get our money’s worth.”