After a six-game winning streak to end conference play, most had higher hopes for Missouri than a 0-3 start against SEC competition. The team’s road trip to 7-8 Texas A&M begged the question: If the slide didn’t end now, how far could things tumble?
The Tigers answered the call by focusing on Cuonzo Martin’s calling card: defense. Although the unit still got off to a solid start this season, it didn’t play up to Martin’s usual standards. Saturday was a different story, as the team played with boundless energy. Combined with some sloppiness on the Aggies’ end, it resulted in an absolutely dominant effort. A&M made only 26 percent of its shots and four-of-22 from beyond the arc. The Tigers were especially impressive in the paint, where Tilmon’s continuous presence (one foul in 27 minutes) helped boost Missouri to a 28-10 advantage down low.
Jordan Geist returned to form with 17 points (six-for-seven from the field and four-for-five from three), five rebounds and five assists. Jeremiah Tilmon racked up 14 points and six rebounds while Mark Smith put up 13 points, including some timely treys early. Kevin Puryear played the kind of bully-ball game Tigers fans haven’t seen from him in weeks, scoring eight points and shooting four-of-seven from 2-point range while collecting 10 rebounds, tied for his season-high. Only two Aggies scored in double figures: junior forward Josh Nebo and sophomore guard Jay Jay Chandler recorded 12 and 11 points, respectively.
Missouri got off to a 5-0 lead as Geist found Tilmon for an open dunk and Smith followed with a 3-pointer after corralling an errant Tilmon pass. The Aggies responded with a 9-0 run before Pickett dropped a soft layup high off the backboard. Both defenses soon settled in, forcing contested shot after contested shot in the half’s early going — the teams combined for just seven points in a 4:57 span.
Geist ended the drought with two treys sandwiched around a Walker 3-pointer. Although Geist’s 3-pointers sparked Missouri’s offensive run, the Tigers’ newfound ability to create space inside opened up their attack. Geist, Smith, Javon Pickett, Puryear and even Ronnie Suggs sliced through A&M’s defense to get looks at the rim, with mixed success. Tilmon, who didn’t record a foul in the first half, followed with a soft-touch fadeaway to extend the lead before a tough Smith drive made it 19-14. Reed Nikko piled on with some uncharacteristic athleticism, finishing a missed Pickett layup with a one-handed putback jam.
Turnovers, including one caused by Tilmon’s failure to capitalize on a double team, briefly halted Missouri’s momentum, but the big man got his team back on the board with a well-contested hook shot, stretching the lead to 25-18. Luckily, Texas A&M also had ball security issues, giving the ball away five times over the course of just 4:22.
The Aggies switched to a zone defense late in the first half in an effort to stop the Tigers inside, but Torrence Watson made them pay with a 3-pointer to give Missouri a 12-point advantage. One possession later, Geist, who finished the half with 14 points on five-of-six shooting (three-of-four from 3-point range), nailed a trey through a foul. He then hit the free throw to give his side a 34-20 lead. The score was 36-21 at halftime.
Missouri carried its momentum over into the early second half, especially on the defensive end. Texas A&M didn’t score its first point of the period until 4:14 had elapsed. The Tigers had built a 20-point lead by then on the back of more strong work down low.
The game was essentially over at the under-12, and Billy Kennedy knew it. The Aggies had scored only three points, and no field goals, 8:32 into the half, so the coach emptied the end of his bench (probably to send a message). 6-foot-3, 181-pound Chris Collins and 5-foot-8 (yeah right), 160-pound Mark French saw extensive playing time. Missouri maintained control in garbage time to close out the victory.
The 10-6 Tigers (1-3 SEC) will look to build on the win with another road game against the mediocre Arkansas Razorbacks on Wednesday. The game starts at 8 p.m. on SEC Network.