Missouri traveled to Orlando confident that it would come away with the Advocare Invitational championship. When it held a 16-point advantage late in the second half against West Virginia on Sunday, it looked like the Tigers would do just that.
Mizzou (5-2) blew its lead against the now No. 19 Mountaineers (6-1), but they still put forth a good showing with a 2-1 record in the tournament that included a win over St. John’s.
The Tigers shot better from the field, shot better from deep, and out-rebounded WVU but managed to still lose by four points. One look at the box score makes the cause obvious.
Turnovers doomed the Tigers
“We didn’t take care of the ball,” Kassius Robertson said. “We take care of the ball, we win that game.” Pretty much. Missouri committed 20 turnovers compared to only eight by West Virginia.
In the second half, the Tigers were simply overwhelmed by the Mountaineers’ relentless full-court press. They looked and played rushed, which brought their offense to a halt and led to several costly turnovers.
Mizzou was faced with a very similar situation against St. John’s after losing a 16-point lead but was able to recover for the win. “It’s just not getting complacent,” Jordan Barnett said when asked why holding leads has been tough. “You build a big lead like that, you might think the game is over, but clearly as we’ve seen it’s not. Teams can come back.”
The black and gold let one get away, and that makes the taste of defeat even more bitter. “We weren’t excited about building a lead,” Robertson said. “We went in there expecting to beat that team, we should have beat that team, we were the better team. We just didn’t take care of the ball, that’s pretty much what it was.”
In short, this is a very talented and resilient group, but it’s a very young one as well. Robertson said they’re doing fine against teams they’re supposed to beat, “But when it comes to dog fights like that, we’ve got to learn how to win in those situations.”
Kevin Puryear was similarly disappointed about the loss, but still believes that it’s a step forward for the program. “I know what Missouri Basketball is all about, I want people to be worried about playing us,” Puryear said. “I think we’re in the process of creating a stigma. We’re definitely setting a new bar for what Missouri Basketball is all about.”
After the ugly loss to Utah and a much-closer-than-it-should-have-been win over Emporia State, Puryear took pride in the unity the team showed and the effort it put forth. On top of that, the Tigers showed fans that even without Michael Porter Jr. they’re a team to be taken seriously.
Speaking of MPJ, unless you’re living under a rock you know about his cryptic phono in his Instagram story on Sunday saying, “Just letting y’all know whoever said it was gonna take 3-4 months to recover lied.”
Media and fans predictably lost their minds and translated the words into “I’m coming back!” The frenzy surrounding anything related to Porter Jr. is expected, but it is also rather frustrating.
“I think from the fans I noticed it. From the media, from the people, everybody other than the players on the team,” Robertson said when asked if having official news on Porter Jr.’s injury gave the team comfort. “I think that it’s a discredit to our guys to say that we were playing with fear that Mike’s not gonna be here. We worry about what’s on the court and not anything else.”
Puryear echoed his Canadian teammate while making a bold claim of his own: “We have a talented group of guys, and we know that we’re capable of being one of the best teams in the country.”
Mizzou has a long way to go to reach that point, but the team (finally) seems to be moving on from the injury saga.
Looking ahead to UCF
Missouri has more immediate issues to worry about, like watching tape and preparing for its upcoming game against Central Florida. “All we know now is they got a 7’6 player. We don’t really know anything else besides big Tacko (Fall),” Puryear said.
Worrisome. Hilarious, but worrisome.
Luckily, Cuonzo Martin is pretty familiar with coaching against UCF coach Johnny Dawkins from his days at Cal. (Dawkins was at Stanford from 2008-16.) Martin pointed to knowing which style and tendencies to expect as the biggest benefits, while admitting that he’d never had to game plan for a player like Fall.
“Even though I like you guys, I can’t give you the blueprint because somehow they’ll get it,” Martin told the media.
“It’s different, and you have to give him different looks. You have to take away his strengths so to speak and not allow him to do what he does, because if that happens it can be a long night. If he gets around the rim there’s not much you really can do because he’s so long.”
UCF will be without starting point guard B.J. Taylor, who is out for four to six weeks with a foot injury. Taylor averaged 17.4 points last year and was named to the All-AAC conference team.
The Knights have been forced to play young, inexperienced guards in his place. It showed in a 46-43 loss to St. John’s in which they shot only 26 percent.
That should give the Missouri backcourt an opportunity to bounce back, but UCF is a scrappy team that isn’t afraid to make things ugly. The Knights held St. John’s to only 27 percent shooting. Perhaps just as impressive, they held Shamorie Ponds, who toasted Mizzou for 31 points, to just 1-for-11 shooting.
The Tigers could find themselves in yet another close game if UCF is able to repeat anywhere near that kind of defensive performance. To win, they’ll have to finish a lot better than they did against WVU.
Central Florida (4-2) will host Missouri at 8 p.m. on Thursday. The game will be aired on ESPN2.