The return of Mark Smith from an ankle injury was expected to elevate the Tigers’ abilities beyond the arc and on defense. But his first game action in over three weeks brought with it the return of two more old Missouri acquaintances: turnovers and Jeremiah Tilmon foul trouble.
To be fair, the Tigers (12-12, 3-9 SEC) somehow managed to make a game of this. A 27-15 run in the middle of the second half allowed Missouri to sneak back into the picture. But the Tigers tied their season high with 25 turnovers, and it was too large a grave to dig out of in a 75-65 loss to Ole Miss (18-7, 8-4 SEC).
Jordan Geist led the team with 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting while coughing the ball up four times. Xavier Pinson was the only other Tiger to crack double-digit scoring with 11 points on 3-of-5 shooting. The freshman guard added nine rebounds but had five giveaways as well. K.J. Santos committed four turnovers while only attempting one shot in 19 minutes. Kevin Puryear and Smith each turned the ball over three times.
Bruce Stevens led Ole Miss with 17 points on 5-for-11 shooting. K.J. Buffen and Breein Tyree added an efficient 14 points apiece and Devontae Shuler also cracked double digits with 12 points.
Although the Tigers managed to dominate down low for much of the game, the Rebels were aided by getting to the free throw line twice as often as the Tigers and hitting 87 percent once they got there.
The Tigers trailed 50-35 when Geist took matters into his own hands. Over the course of 5:23, the senior scored 12 straight Missouri points off an assortment of treys and layups to make the score 57-47.
It wasn’t enough. Although a Javon Pickett 3-pointer cut the deficit to nine for the first time since the intermission, a pair of Geist turnovers immediately following his personal run reignited the Rebels’ offense. A minute later, Tilmon fouled out after posting only four points in 15 minutes. The Tigers would climb within seven on a Geist and-1 jumper but couldn’t get any closer in the defeat.
After the Tigers fell behind 27-15, an 11-4 run in their favor, fueled in part by a Smith 3-pointer, brought the Tigers within four with less than two minutes remaining until halftime. But Ole Miss ended the half with four points of their own. At halftime, the Rebels led 35-26 and MU hadn’t hit a field goal since 4:47 remained on the clock. To make matters worse, Smith ended the half hobbling around the court. He took the floor as scheduled in the next half, but he saw just one stint on the floor in the second period and finished the game with 14 minutes played.
Ole Miss picked up where it left off at the start of the second, forcing four more turnovers by the under-16 timeout and hitting shots from different spots all over the floor in a 12-2 run to begin the period. Tilmon committed his third and fourth fouls before the half was four minutes old, sending him right back to the bench.
The Tigers’ offense sputtered well into the first half. They made only four of their first 18 field goal attempts in the game’s opening 11 minutes. In addition, Tilmon had his first true struggles with fouls in weeks, committing his first two within the game’s first eight minutes. Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin pulled the center and reined in his playing time for the rest of the half.
Ole Miss led 19-10 when Geist spun inside, then pump-faked and twisted to the basket, hitting a layup through Shuler’s foul. Although Geist missed the following free throw, Santos grabbed the rebound and found Puryear open on the perimeter for a trey that cut the deficit to four in the blink of an eye.
However, the turnover issue that plagued Missouri earlier in the season resurfaced during the first period in Oxford. The Tigers coughed the ball up 15 times in the first half alone, in thanks largely to the Rebels’ half court press.
Missouri scored on the game’s first possession via a fourth-chance layup attempt by Puryear. The team didn’t score again for over four minutes, while Ole Miss went on an 8-0 run.
Smith came off the bench during this stretch, his first game action since injuring his ankle in a Jan. 23 game at Arkansas. Smith didn’t hesitate to fire away from 3 like he has so many times this season, but neither of the two he attempted on his first shift found the net.
Missouri’s next game will come at home against the No. 5 Kentucky Wildcats on Tuesday.