“No, I wasn’t nervous at all. I just— I feel like...” Jeremiah Tilmon, like most Missouri fans, couldn’t find the words to describe his team’s late collapse against No. 25 LSU. Finally, he settled on a few succinct sentences.
“We, we had the game. We just be making the mistakes at the wrong time.” His voice quietly trailed off as he finished the thought: “And it happens every time.”
Missouri (10-8, 1-5 SEC) finally appeared to have its first signature win of the season in the bag on Saturday. Instead, the home Tigers blew a 14-point lead with 2:14 remaining and lost to a scorching-hot LSU (16-3, 6-0 SEC) squad 86-80 in overtime thanks to a combination of untimely turnovers, a suddenly cold offense and questionable officiating.
Yes, this is a transition year with limited expectations. No one in Columbia is thinking about the NCAA tournament anymore. But this was a missed opportunity in an energized arena for a young squad that has shown flashes without any semblance of consistency. Missouri was the better side for most of the game, despite hitting only 25 percent of its 3-pointers. The team played with its hair on fire for 37-plus minutes. The last two minutes flipped the script.
“I just simply said to the guys, ‘Look, I have to find a way to get you over the hump in a game like that,’” Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said.
“I’ve never been a part of anything like that,” LSU head coach Will Wade added. “And I thought Missouri played great. I thought they played a lot better than us.”
Jordan Geist led the way with a Herculean effort, recording team highs with 25 points (7-14 FG) and 11 rebounds to go with two steals. Tilmon played 35 minutes and scored 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting. He committed four fouls. Javon Pickett, who battled back spasms throughout the contest, scored 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting.
Junior Skylar Mays led LSU with 24 points on 6-of-12 shooting. Freshman Naz Reid scored 14 points despite making just two field goals and grabbed a team-high eight boards. Freshman Ja’vonte Smart also scored 14 points. Sophomore Tremont Waters also scored 14 (4-17 FG) and dished nine assists.
The Tigers vs. Tigers matchup got off to a roaring start as Tilmon spun his way inside for an easy layup and Geist hit a contested three on Missouri’s first two possessions, giving the home team a quick 5-0 lead. LSU responded with a gorgeous backdoor alley oop from Waters to Marlon Taylor. Kevin Puryear committed a technical foul on the ensuing possession after some uncharacteristic jawing with Reid, forcing Martin to sub in K.J. Santos down low.
Meanwhile, Missouri fell into some early foul trouble, committing the game’s first four in just 3:33, much to the ire of a somewhat lively Mizzou Arena crowd. Tilmon turned the jeers into cheers by hitting a jumper from the free throw line to halt LSU’s 5-0 run. That was the last basket MU scored for a while, and LSU erupted for a 6-0 run in less than a minute to grab a 13-7 advantage.
But the fickle momentum of the referees’ whistles eventually swung in Mizzou’s direction and a pair of free throws each from Ronnie Suggs and Reed Nikko, as well as a rare Nikko elbow jumper, tied the game once more at 13. The referees were all too happy to blow their whistles in this one. Missouri and LSU combined to attempt a whopping 70 free throws in the contest.
Before long, Geist started rolling. The defense lost him while the senior was dribbling in the half-court, and he punished it with a pull-up 3-pointer. He followed that up with two free throws and a contested 3 to bring his stat line to 11 points on uber-efficient 3-for-3 shooting. However, he was also called on a tech for trash talking in his defender’s ear on the latter bucket, forcing Martin to lift him temporarily with a 23-18 lead.
Geist returned later in the half and ignited Mizzou Arena with a spinning basket that looked stuck in the mud and gave the home team a 25-20 lead. Then Xavier Pinson blew the building’s top off by tying up an LSU Tiger and earning a jump ball (LSU maintained possession). Tilmon committed his second foul with 3:28 left in the period, earning him a spot on the bench until the break. The visitors failed to capitalize, and the game was tied 33-all at halftime.
Santos found some early success using the pump fake behind the arc to drive past 6-foot-10, 250-pound Reid in the second period, scoring two baskets in less than 70 seconds to give Missouri a 44-41 lead. LSU changed its defense to a 1-3-1 trap at the under-16 break. While the defense had played an aggressive man-to-man scheme in the first, it had not used any of the press or traps which had been successful for Arkansas against MU on Wednesday.
“We had to have a change up because they were just steamrolling us on ball screens,” Wade said. “We couldn’t get in to the ball, we couldn’t get to the point of attack, and Geist was just... maneuvering through us pretty good.”
However, the smart ball-handling and strong passing of Geist and Pinson proved to be the steady hands Missouri was lacking in its loss earlier this week. On one possession, Pinson found himself matched up one-on-one with Taylor on the perimeter. The freshman crossed up the defender, sprinted inside and tossed a layup through traffic which rolled across the rim and trickled into the cup. A foul was called, and Pinson hit the free throw to stake his team to a 49-43 lead. On two other occasions, Geist took on basically the entire LSU half-court defense, weaving, bending, faking and spinning his way to a pair of layups.
The action came to a head when Puryear missed a contested floater with 10:20 remaining and Mizzou leading 53-45. Tilmon leapt from underneath the basket, skied over his defender and slammed the rebound home with two hands to send the arena into a frenzy.
Pinson fouled out with 6:40 remaining after serving as a spark plug for MU and its fans throughout the evening, giving LSU hope that its defense could pounce on some shaky ball-handling and chip into the 60-51 lead. Geist, however, routinely used the opposing defense’s aggressiveness against them by faking passes and sprinting around the then-airborne Tigers.
LSU made a late push with two 3-pointers and an and-one within a 27-second span that shrunk the visitors’ deficit to 70-65 with 1:37 remaining. Although the visiting defense was probably assisted by a couple of whistles, it also played its most aggressive press of the game, forcing four turnovers in the game’s final three minutes (Mizzou took surprisingly solid care of the ball against an LSU defense known for takeaways prior to this point). The pressure grew higher when Geist made only one free throw and Waters hit a trey with 1:21 left. After a contentious foul on Tilmon while scrapping for a rebound, Reid capped a 14-1 LSU run with two free throws that cut the once-secure Missouri lead to 71-70.
“We can’t get rushed,” Suggs said. “We kind of sped up a little bit (at the end). ... That’s not our game.”
A missed Geist 3-pointer set up one final LSU possession. Strong help defense from Tilmon forced a Waters miss on a drive inside, but Suggs was called for a dubious loose-ball foul that gave Emmitt Williams two free throws with 2.2 seconds remaining. Mizzou Arena raised the noise to a deafening pitch and he missed the first one, but the second shot trickled in after hanging on the rim. One blocked half-court heave later, the two teams of Tigers were headed to overtime.
Pickett picked a good time to hit his first 3-pointer of the contest, nailing a corner trey to start the free period. Williams followed with an emphatic slam. After the teams traded a couple of baskets, Smart hit two 3-pointers in less than a minute, giving LSU an 81-78 lead with 1:35 remaining. The visiting Tigers’ half court press gave Missouri fits late in the extra period; the team mostly resorted to passing the ball around the perimeter without clear direction before hoisting up contested looks. LSU made 5-of-6 free throws in the final 20 seconds to seal the win.
The Tigers will get a similar opportunity to notch an upset, albeit in a more hostile environment, when they travel to No. 16 Auburn on Wednesday (Mark Smith may suit up in that one after missing Saturday’s game with an ankle injury). Until then, Missouri is left to stew and ponder what it will take to finish off a true 40-minute performance against a quality opponent.