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Tigers pull away late from Morehead State

It was not a pretty win, but the Tigers won their fourth game of the season and earned momentum heading into Kansas City next week

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Missouri’s starts and finishes to each half of basketball Wednesday night against Morehead State had room for plenty of praise: the Tigers played clean, efficient basketball. The in-between left plenty to be desired.

After jumping out to a sizzling 14-3 lead in the first five minutes, Missouri played an extremely ugly brand of basketball, saved only by a 7-0 run to end the half.

Ditto for the second half, thanks to Missouri going ice cold from the three-point line. The result was nothing fans didn’t already know: if Missouri struggles to shoot the ball, there will be no putting teams away convincingly.

Obviously, a win is a win. Going into the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, where the crowds will be big and the opponents will be name brand, there was no room for error for a Tiger squad that has been working painstakingly to raise its profile. A 70-52 win over a previously undefeated Morehead State team will do.

While Missouri as a team was freezing from beyond the arc, Mark Smith was anything but. Smith shot 3-5 from deep and scored 21 points, another stellar performance for the junior guard from Edwardsville, Illinois.

Smith’s output was greatly needed by the Tigers, who made just one other three pointer all night. Overall, Missouri was a paltry 4-22 from deep. Torrence Watson struggled especially, going 0-6 and not entering the scoring column. Simply put, the team is going to rely on Watson to be more productive, especially when everyone not named Mark Smith is struggling from deep.

“We’ve been struggling a little bit, but I think we did a good job getting to the rim, getting in the paint, just trying to make plays for other people,” Dru Smith said, who finished with 11 points and five assists for Missouri.

In addition to the struggles shooting the ball, the Tigers struggled to get production from Jeremiah Tilmon. After being unfazed by the double-teams thrown on Monday by Wofford, the pressure seemed to affect the center significantly more Wednesday.

“He sees teams that double him differently,” Martin said. “They send him guards, they send a guy that makes the path, they send him big-on-big, they come from the baseline. He sees so many different things so I would imagine for him, it’s just settling in to how they defend him.” Martin added that he has been overall impressed with his center’s ability to adjust to a variety of pressures this season, although he needs to be better in possession.

There were multiple possessions where the ball was knocked out of the center’s hands, and a handful more where he missed sitters in front of the hoop. Tilmon had five of Missouri’s 17 turnovers, a problem that reared its ugly head after taking the night off on Monday.

Luckily for Missouri, the freshman forwards were there to step up when they were needed most. Tray Jackson scored seven points for the Tigers, followed by Kobe Brown with six. Brown’s buckets were especially crucial, an and-one with 53 seconds remaining in the first half to give the Tigers the lead after Morehead State had drawn level, and a fantastic layup in transition with two seconds left.

“He’s learning the ropes, just like Mario and Tray. He can score the ball,” Martin said. “He’s a physical presence, and he has to be able to attack off the dribble, make plays and post up defensively.”

It might become a theme that gets repeated in every game story from here on out, but Missouri’s defense was its strongest suit tonight. The Tigers forced 16 Morehead State turnovers, limiting the Eagles to just 38% shooting overall.

“We can get even better on defense, and that’s going to be our identity this year,” Mark Smith said. “Coach is always preaching that.”

Missouri has not allowed more than 63 points to any of its first five opponents, a streak that has drawn Cuonzo Martin’s attention. He will need his team to keep it rolling as it heads into Kansas City to face Butler Monday night.