The Razorbacks’ “40 minutes of Hell” defense was more like 20 minutes of mild discomfort on Tuesday at Mizzou Arena.
After coughing up 24 turnovers during a 72-60 loss in Fayetteville, Arkansas, three weeks ago, Missouri committed 11 in the rematch. The Tigers were at their best in the opening 20 minutes, when they committed just four turnovers on the way to a season-high 46 first-half points.
Missouri (12-11, 3-8 SEC) beat Arkansas (14-10, 5-6 SEC) 79-78 on Tuesday despite missing starting guard Mark Smith due to an ankle injury suffered in the teams’ first matchup. The Tigers avoided a third three-game losing streak in conference play with the win.
Jeremiah Tilmon led the home team with 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting. The sophomore committed only three fouls, including a technical for trash talking. Jordan Geist poured in 18 points and went 5-for-14. Xavier Pinson added 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting with a team-high nine boards.
Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford scored a game-high 26 and shot 12-for-17 with eight rebounds. Isaiah Joe added 17 points and went 4-for-9 beyond the arc, but he was the only Razorback who was dialed in from distance. His teammates went 1-for-11, which averaged out at 25 percent. Missouri connected on 35 percent despite playing without Smith, the team’s most accurate 3-point shooter.
Missouri nearly coughed up a second-half 14-point lead. It would have been the team’s fourth blown lead of at least 12 points in its last seven games.
Ronnie Suggs committed a loose ball foul with 1:41 remaining, and Jalen Harris hit both free throws to cut the Tigers’ lead to 76-74. Missouri, however, responded when Kevin Puryear lobbed a beautiful touch pass over the head of Gafford into the hands of Tilmon, who slammed it home with one second remaining on the shot clock. A foul on Pinson allowed Harris to sink another pair from the stripe, and Jordan Geist only made one of two from the line on the other end.
Arkansas converted on a alley-oop play for Gafford out of a timeout with 11 seconds left. Suddenly, the lead was down to 79-78. When Pinson committed an offensive foul on the ensuing inbound, it looked like the Tigers had stumbled down the slippery slope to blowing another large lead. But Missouri played strong defense in the final seconds and Harris’ desperate heave, which was either a shot or a pass for Gafford, who was stationed by the basket, came up short and was swatted away by the Tigers as time expired.
“We expected them to run— it was the play before, they got the lob to Gafford,” Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said. “We expected them to come back with the same play because it was 10 seconds, they had enough time. First thing we talked about, just not allow the lob pass. The one-on-one lob pass to Gafford right there at the rim. ... When they got the ball to the point guard, our guys were expecting that play. The biggest key is to switch and Jeremiah did a good job switching ... and Ronnie did a good job staying strong.”
“We’ve been there so many times,” Suggs said. “Eventually we’ve got to get it right, eventually. We made some mistakes. We had some costly fouls, some costly and-1s that we gave them. ... But we stayed in the moment and the crowd getting into it at the end, that really helped as well.”
The Tigers began the second half by clanking a pair of treys off the rim, but Tilmon collected the second one and put it up through a foul, making the free throw for an old-fashioned 3. Geist followed with a 3 from behind the arc to give Missouri a 52-38 lead. But the team failed to score in the next 3:02 of action, allowing Arkansas to scratch back within 52-43. Three minutes later, a 5-0 Razorbacks run cut the deficit to only five, the first time it had been that low since the game’s sixth minute. Tilmon followed up with an and-1, and Mitchell Smith hit a corner 3 soon after, but a quick 6-0 Arkansas streak cut the lead to just four.
A Suggs trey brought the sleepy Mizzou Arena crowd to its feet for the first time all game. Instead of building on the 70-63 lead, Missouri continued to trade baskets with its opponent.
Missouri handled Arkansas’ frenzied high-pressure defense well from the get-go. In fact, the Tigers didn’t commit their first turnover until 9:36 had elapsed in the first half. Missouri was surprisingly successful running its offense at a quicker pace throughout much of the game; Martin’s teams usually like to slow things down and play in the half-court. This was at least in part due to the continued emergence of Pinson — he was calm running the point and didn’t hesitate to slash to the rim. The freshman committed four turnovers in 21 minutes on the trip to Fayetteville. He turned it over thrice this time, but with a larger share of ball-handling responsibilities in 29 minutes.
“I mean, as long as I’m controlling the tempo, that’s cool,” Pinson said.
The ball security was crucial for the Tigers as they built a 20-10 lead, capped by a Geist trey off a crafty Pinson assist. Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson called timeout just seven and a half minutes into the game. Twelve seconds later, Mason Jones hit a long jumper to give Arkansas their first points from someone not named Gafford. Javon Pickett and Geist responded with a pair of 3s to stretch the lead to 26-12.
Soon, however, Missouri would go through its only cold stretch of the period, scoring just twice over a period of 4:33. Tilmon and Puryear both missed some easy looks inside during the stretch, and Arkansas took advantage. After a 12-6 Razorbacks run, Martin called timeout while his team nursed a six-point lead.
It took a while for Missouri to get its offensive rhythm back. But the Tigers clamped down on defense, stopping Arkansas from scoring a single point for over three minutes after the timeout and increasing the advantage to 36-24 in the process. The visitors constructed a couple of pushes late in the period, like when they trimmed the deficit to seven shortly following a Tilmon technical foul. Each time, the Tigers pushed back with a response of their own. They took a 46-36 lead into halftime, which represented a season-high in points during the first half.
Gafford and Tilmon began the contest by exchanging a trio of dunks, two of which came from the former. The latter’s teammates soon joined in, as Missouri made its first four shots of the game, including two from Puryear. A Pinson 3 made it 12-6 early.
Although the score didn’t show it, Gafford had things working early. The problem is that none of the other Razorbacks managed to contribute — the big man scored his team’s first 10 points and added a vicious block of a Pickett layup attempt that he spiked directly into the ground.
“I knew he was going to score on me, so I just had to say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna go score on him, too. I just had to keep my head, because I don’t play good out there, being angry, talking stuff. ... I try to just not talk at all,” Tilmon said.
Next up, the Tigers face quite possibly their toughest stretch of the season. They travel to Ole Miss, then return to host No. 5 Kentucky. They’ll follow that with a road swing against Florida and Mississippi State.