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Tigers handle UT-Arlington in first comfortable win of season

Missouri was led by freshmen Javon Pickett and Torrence Watson, who both scored in double digits.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Despite playing against low-level competition Tuesday, Missouri took an important step by doing something against Texas-Arlington that it hadn’t done all season: outclass an opponent.

The Tigers beat the Mavericks 65-45 at Mizzou Arena on Tuesday, improving to 5-3 on the season. Freshmen Javon Pickett and Torrence Watson contributed the best performances of their young careers, scoring 12 and 10 points, respectively. Both players shot four-of-nine from the field while taking six 3-point attempts (Watson made three and Pickett made two) and recorded one block as well as one steal. Pickett seems to play better with each passing game. He looked comfortable on defense to start the season, but has already made big strides offensively in his first few games.

“When I get out there, I’m not nervous as much,” Pickett said. “Still nervous a little bit. ... I’m learning where to be on the offense. Being shot-ready, learning when to take my shot, when to drive, when to kick it.”

Watson, meanwhile, is looking to adjust from the high school level and step into his own. Tuesday marked his first game scoring in double digits.

“The tough part about it, because of the landscape, the one-and-dones, the mentality nowadays, it’s like a guy can’t be a freshman and go through struggles,” Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said. “I know I went through it. ... It’s part of it. It’s part of the growth. And I think that’ll make him a better basketball player.”

“Seeing the ball go through the hoop,” Watson added, “I think for everybody, it makes their confidence go up.”

Sophomore Jeremiah Tilmon added 10 points of his own to go along with 12 rebounds for the fourth double-double of his career. He did, however, turn the ball over four times.

Tilmon and senior Kevin Puryear earned a few looks inside with ease in the game’s opening minutes, but couldn’t get the shots to fall. Missouri didn’t fall far behind, however, because it forced the Mavericks to turn the ball over seven times in the game’s first five minutes and 12 times in the first half.

“Well I hope it was us,” Martin said. “I’d like to think if nobody was out there, they would take care of the ball.”

Pickett hit an open 3 from the corner to open Missouri’s scoring three minutes in, then sunk another triple from the same exact spot 46 seconds later.

UT-Arlington may have struggled to hold on to the ball, but the turnover-prone Tigers had no issues navigating the Mavericks’ full-court 1-3-1 trap. Missouri committed only five turnovers in the first half. UT-Arlington, however, climbed back into the game with an 8-5 run in the 3:24 span between the under-16 and under-12 timeouts, cutting the lead to 11-10.

Following a Watson free throw, senior Jordan Geist kicked off a 12-2 run with a 3-pointer, one of nine the Tigers made on the night (out of 25 attempts). After early misses inside, Puryear and Tilmon began to outmuscle the Mavericks inside for some baskets. The Tigers’ guards, Pickett especially, also found room to drive to the rim and take advantage of the size mismatch; UT-Arlington’s tallest starters are 6-foot-5 and the team has just one player above 6-foot-6.

The Mavericks managed to string together a basket and a free throw to bring the deficit back to single digits late in the first half, but Missouri ended the period on an 11-4 run. Redshirt sophomore Mitchell Smith capped the streak off with a 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded to take a 37-21 lead into the locker room. It was the second straight half the Tigers played that ended with a Missouri 3-pointer at the buzzer following Geist’s game-tying shot against UCF on Sunday.

The Tigers took their foot off the pedal offensively in the second half, but still outscored the Mavericks 28-24 in the period. Shooting from deep dried up, as Missouri hit only three-of-14 3-pointers after making six-of-11 in the first. But their defense forced UT-Arlington into the same struggles it experienced in the first half: namely, turnovers. The Mavericks gave the ball away nine more times after halftime.

Tilmon committed four fouls, all in the second half, but Martin said he didn’t think any of them were egregious on first glance. On the other side of the foul spectrum, the big man’s free throw shooting has looked consistently smooth this season, culminating in a six-for-six night from the stripe against UT-Arlington.

Missouri’s next matchup is at home against Oral Roberts on Friday at 6 p.m. The game can be watched on SEC Network. Sophomore K.J. Santos, who is medically cleared but did not play against the Mavericks, is expected to see his first action of the season.