It goes without saying that it’s hard to play basketball without big men. But Missouri found out just how hard it is during a messy first half against Oral Roberts on Friday.
The Tigers gave up a 17-7 run over a 6:43 span to the Golden Eagles, No. 302 in the Kenpom rankings, as Jeremiah Tilmon, Reed Nikko and Mitchell Smith all left the floor early in the period with a combined nine fouls.
With its big men (mostly) on the floor, Missouri (6-3) snapped back to life in the second half to beat Oral Roberts (3-9) 80-64. The Tigers led by as much as 28, despite leading by only seven at the break, before subbing in their backups in the game’s final minutes.
Six Missouri players finished the contest with double-digit points: sophomore Mark Smith (14), senior Jordan Geist (12), Tilmon (12), senior Kevin Puryear (12), freshman Torrence Watson (12) and freshman Xavier Pinson (11). No other Tiger scored more than three points.
Oral Roberts big man Emmanuel Nzekwesi scored a game-high 17 points on eight-of-15 shooting (all on 2-pointers). Freshman forward DeShang Weaver shot four-of-11 beyond the arc, chipping in 14 points altogether. Junior guard Aidan Saunders added 12 points and went five-of-nine from the field.
Neither offense could find its bearings in the first four minutes; Missouri led by the measly score of 3-2 at the under-16 break. The Tigers eventually found their way back to the usual formula of working the ball inside to Tilmon (and Nikko) in order to open up the 3-point line, and they led 14-4 after a Geist jumper eight minutes in.
Some extracurricular activity after the Golden Eagles’ Chris Miller fouled Mark Smith resulted in some heated words between Miller and Tilmon. Each received a technical, sending Tilmon to the bench for the rest of the half with two fouls. Nikko, who had already been removed with his first foul, returned to the game and picked up two more within 20 seconds.
Martin elected to substitute Nikko for K.J. Santos, who made his Missouri debut. The sophomore threw the ball off the rim while attempting a cross-court pass within seconds of entering the game. It was his first of two turnovers in a shift that lasted only 1:41. Nikko re-entered for Santos and committed a fourth foul, so Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin elected to replace him with Mitchell Smith, who already had two fouls. It took just 50 seconds for him to commit a third one, forcing the Tigers to close out the half with 6-foot-8 Santos and 6-foot-7 Puryear down low.
“I think we couldn’t really get into a rhythm of the game,” Puryear said. “Because they were in the bonus halfway through.
“We practice that all the time, to be honest. Coach, when we go five-on-five, he’ll say, ‘Reed and Jeremiah have four fouls.’ Or, ‘Jeremiah’s fouled out. Reed has four fouls.’ ... It’s not like we’re not prepared for it.”
Offensively, the Tigers struggled once Oral Roberts switched to a zone defense. With a size advantage on the interior, the Golden Eagles were able to focus on Missouri’s perimeter shooting and lock down any attempt at penetration by the team’s guards.
“We stood a little bit too much in the zone,” Puryear said. “We were very stagnant and didn’t move the ball as well as we could. At halftime, Coach Martin was talking about how we need to move better without the ball. And we did that coming into the second half.”
The Tigers rebounding also suffered; Oral Roberts out-rebounded Missouri on the offensive glass 9-5 in the first half. The Tigers led their low-major counterparts only 33-26 at the half.
The Golden Eagles made five of their first 10 field goals to cut the deficit to 40-38. Watson responded with an open corner 3-pointer (he made a living on that shot, going four-for-four on it). Geist followed with a layup before producing the sequence of the game. After an Oral Roberts turnover, someone passed to Geist, who sprinted the length of the floor and beat the only guy standing between him and the basket for a layup. Then he stole the inbounds pass and immediately fought through contact to put it up for a reverse layup. Basket good. Foul called. Fans went crazy as the point guard flexed them. Geist made the free throw. Missouri’s lead had grown from 40-38 to 48-38 in the blink of an eye.
“Those two plays really jacked us up,” Puryear said. “If you saw the bench, we were all super hype, especially when he got the and-one.”
From there, it was all Tigers until they emptied their bench at the end of the game. Their big men asserted dominance over the smaller opponents, zone or no zone.
“It makes it a lot easier (when we have Tilmon),” Geist said. “They either gotta all collapse and we can get an open 3, or he goes one-on-one. I’ll take one-on-one with him any day.”
Their shooters caught fire, hitting seven-of-13 3-pointers in the second half. Outside of Watson, Mark Smith and Pinson were the two hottest, hitting three-of-six and three-of-five 3-pointers, respectively, on the evening. And they committed only four fouls after being called for 12 in the first half, preventing the Golden Eagles from making the free throws that kept them alive offensively before halftime. Missouri led 75-47 at the under-four timeout before letting Oral Roberts hit the backdoor cover on a final score of 80-64.
Missouri won’t play for another 11 days, when the Tigers host Xavier at 6 p.m. on Dec. 18. Tipoff from Mizzou Arena can be watched on ESPNU.