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Missouri bows out to Auburn in SEC Tournament second round

Missouri hung around for 38 minutes, a vast improvement from its last game against Auburn, but it wasn’t enough

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Auburn vs Missouri Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Farewell, Jordan Geist. And farewell, Kevin Puryear.

Despite a second consecutive herculean performance from Geist, Missouri (15-17, 5-13 SEC) lost to No. 22 Auburn (23-9, 11-7 SEC) 81-71 in the second round of the SEC Tournament on Thursday in Nashville, Tennessee. The other Tigers will face South Carolina in Friday’s quarterfinals.

The loss stings, but this MU performance was miles better than the first go-round against AU. Missouri suffered the worst loss of the Cuonzo Martin era, 92-58, when these teams squared off at Auburn on Jan. 30. MU committed 20 total turnovers and was outscored 58-27 in the second half. This time, Martin’s squad limited itself to 14 turnovers, eight at the hands of Xavier Pinson. Missouri had a legitimate chance to win for 38 minutes.

Geist led MU with a game-high 25 points on 14 field goal attempts, including a 5-for-11 clip on triples. Torrence Watson was also hot from deep, scoring 20 points on 6-for-9 shooting beyond the arc. Jeremiah Tilmon scored eight points, all in the second half, on 4-for-5 shooting. In his final collegiate game, Puryear scored five points on 2-for-4 shooting from the field with three boards and one assist.

Guard Bryce Brown paced Auburn with 17 points. Forward Chuma Okeke dropped 12 on an efficient seven field goal attempts. Wing Malik Dunbar and forward Horace Spencer added 11 apiece; the latter also grabbed a game-high 10 boards.

With the game tied at 52, Spencer’s long and-1 hook shot with 11:02 remaining shifted the tide decisively (it also resulted in Tilmon’s fourth foul). Treys from Danjel Purifoy and Brown, the second of which was a third-chance basket, extended the lead to 62-51. Sequences like this were all too common for Missouri, who gave up 13 offensive rebounds, including six to Spencer. Auburn won the battle on the boards 33-32, snapping MU’s streak of nine consecutive games outrebounding its opponent.

Missouri had one more mini-run left in its season, courtesy of Watson. The freshman nailed a trey and was fouled on a fast-break attempt shortly after, resulting in two made free throws. The 61-57 deficit was the closest the Tigers got the rest of the way. They cut the lead to five points three times in the last 4:30 of play but never got over the hump, as Auburn went 2-for-3 from deep and 5-for-6 from the free-throw line during that span to close out the game.

Tilmon finally got on the board to trim Missouri’s deficit to 38-35 with 16:21 remaining, although he committed his third foul 14 seconds later. The sophomore remained on the floor. The big man scored the Tigers’ next two baskets, as well, but Auburn responded with two consecutive treys, taking a 49-39 lead and forcing Cuonzo Martin to call timeout.

Puryear ended the offensive drought by squeezing inside for a basket, then a pair of Geist 3s clipped Auburn’s advantage to two. Jared Harper canned a trey off a Pinson turnover, but Missouri continued to battle, as Geist spun his way to a nifty layup, and Watson made a deep triple off a Geist assist to tie the game. The Tigers made six field goals in a row during the 13-3 run.

Midway through the first half, the pace started to quicken, bringing out Missouri’s trademark sloppiness. The Tigers committed four turnovers in less than two minutes. Consequently, the high-flying Auburn offense opened up and scored 11 unanswered points to take a 30-21 lead, highlighted by Dunbar’s ferocious one-handed throw-down, over the course of four and a half minutes.

Watson snapped Missouri’s cold spell with a 3, and it took only two minutes for Puryear and Geist to follow with treys of their own, tying the game once more. Defensively, Auburn continued to push the ball even after Missouri’s half-court defense settled down, resulting in rushed possessions and a single field goal make over the last 3:25 of the period. Auburn took a 32-30 lead into the break.

Both offenses struggled in the half court during the early going. Auburn’s pressure defense gave Missouri trouble, forcing a five-second violation on an inbounds pass and using half-court traps to prey on MU’s ball security issues. Pinson’s struggles were particularly noteworthy, as the freshman gave up six turnovers in the first 20 minutes alone. AU locked down Tilmon in the first half at the expense of leaving perimeter shooters open. Missouri went 8-for-16 beyond the arc before the break as opposed to 1-for-9 inside it.

Auburn was up 3-2 about three minutes in when Geist hit the first of two treys in 43 seconds. The senior scored Missouri’s first eight points. AU retook a 9-8 lead, but Watson hit his second shot of the day, a deep 3, to start his recovery from Wednesday’s win over Georgia, when he missed all five attempts from the field in 36 minutes of action.

Auburn, on the other hand, struggled from deep early, missing its first eight shots beyond the arc, a surprise from the SEC’s second-ranked 3-point offense (37.5 percent). The misfires wouldn’t last, as the Tigers heated up to make nine of 17 triples (52.9 percent) in the second half.

AU hit its first trey at 12:03 of the first half, cutting the lead to 13-12. However, Pinson responded by cutting to the basket and powering through the post defender for a strong and-1 (he missed the free throw).