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Missouri can still hope for SEC’s 10th seed after beating Alabama

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A two minute surge in the second half put the Tigers ahead for good.

Photo courtesy of MU Athletics

A Missouri fan stood at the free throw line Saturday. Not with a basketball in hand, but instead with a firm grip on a putter.

He faced the opposite basket, a sign for Burgers’ Smokehouse on the other free throw line 64 feet away. The fan had a shot to win a year’s worth of bacon, all he had to do was hit a golf ball through a mouse hole in the sign. He lined up for the shot, hit the ball with a perfect swing, watched it go right through the hole and pumped his fist as the fans that hadn’t left their seats for a halftime bathroom break went crazy.

That was about as loud as they would get all day.

Outside of the fantastic putt the fan made, there wasn’t much for the crowd in Mizzou Arena to cheer for during Missouri’s matchup with Alabama. The teams combined for 34 turnovers and 42 fouls against just 36 made field goals. It was one of those games some people claim Cuonzo Martin’s teams love to play, the grind it out affairs that feature more bad basketball than good.

Missouri does have a penchant to thrive in those games, though, and it did once again in a 69-50 win Saturday. Though a few more things still need to go right for the Tigers to lock down the 10th seed in next week’s SEC Tournament, they did their part by taking down the Crimson Tide.

“I’d like to think we defended the way I think we could and should defend as a team consistently,” Martin said. “That was more as a team. I think we had ups and downs of showing elite level defense throughout conference play, (...) I just think defended the way I thought we could defend throughout a season.”

If somehow you’re a fan of bad basketball, then the first half was definitely for you.

The teams combined to go 14 for 48 from the field, 2 for 23 from deep (Missouri didn’t make a single shot from beyond the arc) and 11 for 16 from the charity stripe. They also both had 12 turnovers apiece, yet combined for just 16 points off those turnovers.

Yes, it was hard to watch. The prettiest play (among the very, very few pretty plays in general) arguably came with 4:22 left in the half when Xavier Pinson grabbed an offensive rebound, crossed over behind is back to get around a defender and hit Mitchell Smith for an easy layup.

It was a far cry from the last time these two teams played, when Missouri and Alabama combined for 87 first half points in Tuscaloosa.

I think we just went back to playing the defense that we’ve said that we need to play all year,” Reed Nikko said. “And credit to them, too, they held us to playing pretty poorly offensively in that first half, too.”

And the second half wasn’t much easier to stomach. The Tigers still struggled from deep, though Mitchell Smith nailed a 3-pointer with 14:18 to play for Missouri’s first since the 16:31 mark in the second half of Wednesday’s loss to Ole Miss.

Kira Lewis Jr. hit two free throws with 10:09 to play to give the Tide a 37-34 lead, and there was hardly any life in the crowd.

The Tigers had been playing like there was a lid on the rim for most of the game, but they then remembered how to put the ball in the basket.

Dru Smith hit a jumper in the paint. Pinson hit two free throws. Smith added another free throw and then followed it up with another jumper. And on the final play of the scoring run, Jeremiah Tilmon blocked a John Petty Jr. shot, Mitchell Smith fought to grab the long offensive board and then threw a pass to Javon Pickett underneath Alabama’s basket, who converted an and-one layup to put Missouri up 44-37.

“That (run) was probably the biggest part to us, because that really got the fans into it,” Mitchell Smith said. “So when we’re getting the fans into it then that’s when we really start to roll.”

The Tigers didn’t look back from there. The Crimson Tide managed to get within five points, but Missouri kept them at bay and extended its lead to as many as 20.

When the game was firmly in hand with 1:07 left on the clock, Martin put Reed Nikko back in the game. A healthy Tilmon meant Nikko’s role was reduced in the regular season finale, but Martin wanted to make sure Nikko got his moment on Senior Day.

And he did, checking out with 14 seconds to play to a huge ovation from the Missouri faithful as the Tigers picked up the much needed win. Now, with the SEC Tournament seeding out of his team’s hands, Martin just wants to focus on whatever opponent Missouri gets, regardless of the day.

“Whoever the opponent is, let’s roll,” Martin said. “It’s time to play some ball.”