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Missouri remains perfect in Rally for Rhyan games

The Tigers beat Vanderbilt 76-66 for their second SEC win of the year

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri’s once-comfortable advantage looked precarious as Jordan Geist dribbled through defenders around the top of the key, searching for anywhere to go with the ball.

Five, four, three. The shot clock ticked down.

The Tigers’ 14-point lead had all but vanished. With less than four minutes remaining, they led 62-57. MU struggled to retake control of the chaotic battle that the downtrodden Commodores squad had suddenly mustered.

Two. Geist spotted Torrence Watson, about four or five feet beyond the arc, and delivered the pass.

One. The freshman hoisted up a trey as a Vandy defender flew past him with hand in the air.

Zero. The ball hit nothing but twine.

The biggest shot of Watson’s career electrified Mizzou Arena and spearheaded the final surge Missouri (11-9, 2-6 SEC) needed to sink Vanderbilt (9-12, 0-8 SEC) in a 77-67 win. The victory snapped a three-game losing streak, the second the team has already suffered in conference play. It also raised the Tigers’ record to 4-0 in annual Rally for Rhyan games, an event which is intended to raise awareness and funds for pediatric cancer research.

Jeremiah Tilmon led the team with 19 points on 7 for 12 shooting. He grabbed eight rebounds and committed four fouls, though he was never truly in foul trouble. Geist powered through a below-average shooting day to finish with 15 points, five rebounds and six assists. Freshmen Javon Pickett and Watson each finished with 12 points. The latter’s output came on an efficient 5 of 8 performance. Kevin Puryear grabbed a game-high 10 boards but didn’t score despite five field goal attempts.

Aaron Nesmith led the Commodores with 19 points on 4 of 9 shooting before fouling out. Saben Lee added 15 points on 4 of 10 shooting and a game-high seven assists.

Missouri mostly dominated until Vanderbilt found an offensive rhythm with about 12 minutes left to play and cut into the 48-34 deficit with an 11-0 run spanning just 1:42 of game action. After struggling from beyond the arc in the first half, the Commodores progressed to the mean by hitting 6 of their first 11 from 3-point range after halftime.

Mitchell Smith halted the run with a trey of his own, and Tilmon followed with a pair of free throws, but the Tigers failed to move their lead past eight points on three occasions. Smith landed on Nesmith while the latter was attempting a triple, and the Commodore hit all three to cut the lead to 62-57. That’s when Watson stepped in with his deep-ball heroics.

“I felt really good about it,” Watson said. “I knew it was going in before it touched my hands. G was up top, I kept calling for it, he made a great pass and it went in.”

On the Tigers’ next possession, Geist, who struggled with his shot for most of the game, skipped behind a Smith screen and nailed a trey to give Mizzou a nine-point lead. Vanderbilt never drew closer than six points again.

Both teams got out to a sluggish start in the second half: Neither scored in the first two minutes of the period, and they combined for two made field goals in the first five minutes. But Geist got things rolling with a 3-pointer to stretch the lead to 12 before completing the play of the game. Smith gathered a defensive rebound and lobbed an outlet pass downcourt all the way by the Vanderbilt basket. Geist settled under the ball as it flew just overhead then, in one fluid motion, the guard jumped, caught it, flipped it toward the rim and crashed, almost horizontally, to the floor. The ball fell through the basket for an and-1, and Mizzou Arena roared louder than it had all game. After a Vanderbilt timeout, Geist hit the free throw to give MU a 46-31 lead.

The Tigers ended the first half on an 11-4 run. The stretch included Watson’s second in-traffic layup of the game, a positive sign for the four-star freshman who has looked timid while trying to find his offensive footing at the collegiate level. Watson showed confidence in his shooting abilities as well, never hesitating to fire from deep and even rising over the defense for an off-balance midrange bucket.

“I had to realize how much work you have to put in order to be good on this stage,” Watson said. “So coming in everyday before practice ... and working out after practice, just making sure that I’m getting better everyday.”

After Vandy failed to cash in an easy second-chance opportunity, Ronnie Suggs grabbed a rebound and sprinted coast-to-coast before connecting through a foul underneath the basket. The junior walk-on immediately turned to the crowd with a stony expression as fans cheered in approval. He hit the following free throw to extend MU’s lead to 34-24.

Xavier Pinson used a screen to find daylight for a pull-up trey between a pair of Vandy free throws and a Vandy layup, and Missouri took a 37-28 advantage into the locker room.

Coming out of the first TV timeout, Mizzou went on a 9-2 run stemming solely from baskets in the paint. Watson made a tough layup in traffic. Reed Nikko tipped in a missed Pickett layup. And finally, Tilmon converted on two straight reverse post-ups, both of which came off Puryear feeds from the top of the key. The second one went for an and-1.

Mark Smith, the SEC’s leader in 3-point percentage (47.5), missed his third straight game with an ankle injury. Instead of trying to replace his production from deep, Missouri focused on pounding the porous Commodores defense down low. Tilmon, Mitchell Smith and Pickett continued the parade through the paint, stretching the lead to 26-16.

But Vanderbilt then clamped down on defense, shutting out the Tigers for four minutes while countering offensively with fast breaks and free throws. Almost half of the Commodores’ 28 first-half points came off of free throws — they went 12 for 16 from the stripe in the period. On the other hand, they didn’t hit their first trey until 2:21 into the second half.

Pickett kicked off the contest by scoring Missouri’s first six points: three on a driving and-1 layup and three on a moderately contested shot from beyond the arc. The Tigers led 8-6 going into the first TV timeout.

Rhyan Loos walked onto the court at halftime along with her family and several other pediatric cancer survivors and their families. The 8-year-old Loos waved to the crowd as fans clad in black and gold gave her a standing ovation. Her father, assistant athletics director Brad Loos, delivered a halftime speech.

“I found out what true toughness and going through adversity looks like when I watch Rhyan and these kids,” Brad Loos said. “If you want to see true toughness watch a kid battle through chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy.”

A likely reality check lies on the horizon. Mizzou will travel to Knoxville and square off against the No. 1 Tennessee Volunteers on Tuesday.

But that’s a few nights from now. Saturday was a feel-good night for Missouri on multiple levels. For two hours, the Tigers community rallied around both the tremendous cause of pediatric cancer research and a winning basketball team.

After a tornado of a week that began with a heartbreaking and infuriating home loss to No. 19 LSU and reached a fever pitch with shocking sanctions handed down by the NCAA, Mizzou desperately needed something to rally around.