Prior to Missouri’s SEC home opener against Tennessee on Tuesday, the team announced Jeremiah Tilmon would be out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his left foot.
The Tigers could’ve allowed their morale to drop as they learned one of the team’s leaders would be missing extended time right as SEC play ramps up. But instead, Missouri came out fighting against the Volunteers as it attempted to get its first conference win of the season.
Seven different players scored at least six points, as the scoring needed to be spread out in Tilmon’s absence and with Dru Smith facing foul trouble, but Tennessee ended up shooting 53% from the field and 46% from 3 as the Tigers (8-6, 0-2 SEC) fell 69-59 to the Volunteers (9-5, 1-1 SEC).
“They made shots, they made big 3s,” head coach Cuonzo Martin said. “We normally do a great job defending the 3-point line, just didn’t happen tonight. They made plays and they won the ballgame.”
Tray Jackson and Mitchell Smith were the lone Missouri players in double-figures, scoring 11 and 10, respectively, while Tennessee’s Jordan Bowden led all scorers with 13.
The first half was marked by a number of runs for both teams.
Neither team held more than a six-point lead, and, outside of Yves Pons’ jumper to start the game, all of the teams’ points came in runs of at least five points. A Reed Nikko jumper and a Mark Smith 3-pointer answered Pons’ first bucket, but that run was quickly answered by two Jordan Bowden layups and two John Fulkerson free throws.
Those scoring outputs were in turn answered by eight more runs of (alternating between the Tigers and the Volunteers) five, seven, five, five, five, six, eight and six points, respectively. In a game where points were at a premium, both teams struggled to respond when the other team put one in the hoop.
Not to mention that the early part of the period saw almost too many travels to count.
Neither team was immune to the referees’ whistles, with both teams being called for at least three travels during the first half of the period. It got so bad that, starting at the 14:52 mark, three straight possessions ended on traveling calls, with Santiago Vescovi, Xavier Pinson and Fulkerson trading violations.
“Just a lot of moving. It’s a tough thing, because that travel call, I think on both sides a lot goes on,” Martin said.
And just to shed more light on the ugliness of the first half, the teams combined for just 20 turnovers, which was only one less than the combined number of made field goals.
The second half started ugly as well, but this time only for Missouri.
Tennessee’s Josiah-Jordan James and Pons hit back-to-back 3s to start the second half, to give Tennessee a 10-point lead, the largest of the game.
However, the Tigers’ bigs sparked the comeback and outscored the Volunteers 17-5 over the next 6:18, with Mitchell Smith, Nikko and Jackson combining for all 17 Missouri points as the Tigers took a 45-43 lead. Also lost in that run was Missouri showing off its defensive chops once again, with a reverse layup by Jackson sandwiched in between back-to-back shot clock violations forced by the Tigers.
With the game as close as it was post-Missouri run, the physicality and intensity was even more apparent midway through the second half.
At the 10:22 mark, Mitchell Smith and Dru Smith trapped Vescovi near the sideline before Mitchell Smith stole the ball. Vescovi and Bowden attempted to trap Smith in the same spot, and both Smith and Bowden went tumbling to the floor. Both teams surrounded the players and exchanged words, but the officials managed to break up the scrum before things got out of hand.
There was a bit of a scuffle near the Tennessee bench. Refs still deciding what to call. pic.twitter.com/CHaXmzXI0t— Andrew Kauffman (@AndrewABC17) January 8, 2020
After a review, Vescovi was given a personal foul and Smith was called for a technical foul.
“The guy put the ball in front of me and I just took it from him, and I mean, they don’t like that,” Smith said. “I was just trying to get out of there, find my teammate, and they all swarmed me... I wasn’t trying to do anything malicious or nothing like that. So I think it kind of got blown out of proportion, but I’m just out there playing basketball.”
Missouri later took a 53-50 lead on two free throws from Smith, but James tied it up with a trey and Vescovi knocked down another to give Tennessee a three-point lead. On the next possession, Dru Smith drove the lane but was called for a charge, his fifth foul that sent him to the bench with 5:04 left to play, and Vescovi then hit another 3-pointer to extend the lead to 56-53.
The Tigers’ DNA doesn’t allow them to back down on the defensive end, though, and they forced turnovers on back-to-back possessions to give them a chance to trim the lead. But Pinson was blocked on a layup attempt and then missed another from under the basket, putting the nail in the coffin.
The Volunteers extended their lead to 10 as the fans flocked to the exits, and the loss makes Saturday’s game against Florida even more important.