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Missouri can’t hang on in regular-season finale loss to Ole Miss

Freshman Xavier Pinson and Torrence Watson played like the future is now, but the Tigers couldn’t hold a 10-point lead

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

Missouri’s senior class of Jordan Geist, Kevin Puryear, Cullen VanLeer and Adam Wolf did not walk off Norm Stewart Court for the final time as victors. And barring a miraculous run in Nashville, this season is bound to end without a final stop at the NCAA Tournament or even the National Invitation Tournament.

But their legacy will live on, passed down to the next generation eager to push Missouri’s rebuild to the next level: Tilmon. Watson. Pinson. And so on.

“It was kind of surreal,” Puryear said. “I really appreciate all the love that I got from the fans. It’s just a really big moment for me. It’s good to be recognized. I really worked my butt off the last few years here. ... Unfortunately, we didn’t get the outcome we wanted. But we fought hard. It was a good team effort.

“I love these guys. You know, I’m happy I get to be around them everyday. Unfortunately, our time is dwindling down.”

The Tigers earned an eight-point halftime lead in Saturday’s regular-season finale. They extended that advantage to 10 twice in the opening minutes of the second. But it wasn’t enough to hold off Ole Miss’ shooting barrage in a 73-68 loss at Mizzou Arena.

“I thought it was an NCAA Tournament play-in game,” Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis said. “I asked Breein (Tyree) and (Terence Davis), ‘Have you ever played in a tournament game that gets you to the NCAA Tournament?’ And they said no, and I said, ‘Well, you’re going to be in one at Missouri.’”

The Tigers’ two-game win streak was snapped, and Missouri will face Georgia as a 12 seed in the first round of the SEC Tournament at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Javon Pickett sat out the game with a back injury. He is questionable for the postseason.

Xavier Pinson led the way with a scorching day from the floor, scoring 12 points on eight for 12 shooting. He added six assists to just two turnovers. Torrence Watson scored 14 points and Jeremiah Tilmon dropped 11 to go with seven rebounds.

Geist scored 12 points and recorded five rebounds and four assists in his Mizzou Arena swan song. Puryear struggled to find his shot early but recovered for six points on three for six shooting.

The Tigers committed 25 turnovers in their first matchup with Ole Miss but handled the Rebels’ half court pressure much better in this one, finishing with 10 giveaways.

Ole Miss junior Breein Tyree scored a game-high 21 points and shot 6-of-13 from the field. Sophomore Devontae Shuler added 18 points on a mere nine field goal attempts.

With 11:49 to play, Puryear scored on a drive that broke a 46-all deadlock as the shot clock expired. On the next possession, Pinson knifed his way through the retreating defense for a layup. Missouri would extend its lead to six twice.

But Ole Miss wasn’t done. The teams traded baskets until about six minutes remained, before two free throws and a Tyree 3 gave the Rebels their first lead since 6:14 remained in the first half. Shuler then stole the ball on an ill-advised Watson pass and went coast to coast for an emphatic slam that extended the advantage to 62-59.

Tilmon ended the Rebels’ run with a reverse layup, and Watson followed soon after with another 3 to retake the lead. Pinson extended it to 66-63 with 2:35 to go, but that was as good as it got for Missouri. Davis posterized Tilmon and then hit the ensuing free throw to tie the game once more. Seconds later, Shuler stole the ball from Pinson and drove the length of the floor to give Ole Miss the lead for good. It appeared Shuler may have pushed Pinson to gain control of the ball, but no call was made.

Down 71-68 with 10 seconds to go, Geist’s layup attempt was blocked by Bruce Stevens. The Rebels hit three of four free throws in the final 24 seconds to close out the game.

Watson continued his torrid stretch from the get-go, scoring Missouri’s first basket on a 3-pointer. The freshman averaged 18.5 points and shot 52 percent from the field, including 47.4 percent beyond the arc, during the Tigers’ two-game win streak over South Carolina and Georgia. He added three free throws (out of four) earned on aggressive drives to the rim in the game’s first 12 minutes.

“I think a lot of the (defenders) are closing out really hard,” Watson said. “I think the last couple games, I’ve been shooting it really well. So just being conscious that guys are going to close out really hard, and being able to get to the basket (has been big for me).”

“I think he’s one of the most improved players in our league,” Davis added.

Unfortunately, Watson was the only Tiger producing in the game’s early minutes. The offense was simply out of sync. Players made the wrong passes, spacing looked off, balls clanked off of legs or feet and a gentle lob from Geist went right through Ronnie Suggs’ hands and out of bounds.

The momentum shifted on a single play. With 8:07 remaining in the first half and Missouri down 17-11, the Tigers had to pull off an inbounds play with three seconds on the shot clock. Geist caught the pass and launched up a contested 3, draining it to ignite the Mizzou Arena crowd.

Davis called timeout, but he couldn’t stem the rising tide. Puryear and Geist each made a basket. The latter was removed from the floor after committing his third foul with 4:49 to go in the half and Missouri down 19-18, seemingly providing a chance for the Rebels to regain control.

Enter Pinson. The turnover-prone freshman was in strong command of his game on this afternoon. After Tilmon dropped a pair of free throws and recorded a block on the other end, Pinson weaved through traffic and zipped a pass to the big man down low for a two-handed jam. On the next possession, Ole Miss tried to trap Pinson with a double team just beyond half court. He passed it over the defenders and again found Tilmon down low, this time for a teardrop lay-in. Pinson also converted two strong layups that bookended a Watson trey, which he assisted on, before his grand finale: an absolutely nasty stepback 3-pointer that extended the Tigers’ lead to 11 and capped a 24-6 run. Pinson scored or assisted on Missouri’s final 14 points of the half over a span of just 3:07.

Shuler hit a 3-pointer with 29 seconds left in the period, and the Tigers led at the break34-26.

Missouri retired John Brown’s No. 50 during the halftime ceremony, and one lucky fan hit a half court shot to win $50,000.

Pinson picked up in the second half where he left off in the first, recording another basket to open the scoring. The Rebels responded with a 7-0 run, but Pinson ended it with another 3-pointer that sparked a 7-0 stretch in Missouri’s favor and prompted a quick Davis timeout.

This time, the stoppage worked. Ole Miss went on a 13-3 run, including three 3-pointers, to storm back and tie the game with 12:20 to play. The Rebels shot just 1-of-8 from beyond the arc in the first, but they poured it in during the second, converting 7-of-14 after the break.

Missouri took a step back this season, but that was to be expected after the team graduated its two best players from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad, Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett, and lost sophomore Jontay Porter to season-ending injury before he could play a game.

Even so, the program has come a long way since the Kim Anderson days from whence these four seniors came. Puryear, VanLeer and Wolf, who played through the final two years of the Anderson era (Geist arrived for the final season), went 18-45 in their first two seasons at MU. They won five total SEC games, and they lost to the likes of Eastern Illinois, North Carolina Central and Lipscomb during the 2016-17 season. Ten Tigers left the program between the start of the 2015-16 campaign and Anderson’s departure in March 2017.

In the two years since, under head coach Cuonzo Martin, the program made its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013, beat three ranked opponents and reeled in two five-star and five four-star commitments over three classes. Only two players, Blake Harris and Christian Guess, have left the program (excluding Michael Porter Jr., who declared for the NBA Draft, and Terrence Phillips, who was removed from the team during a Title IX investigation) since the start of last season.

“I came in as a freshman who won 97 high school games, coming off a state championship my senior year,” Puryear said. “And then came in, completely fell on my face as far as winning games. Really didn’t know what it took to win at the college level, so it was kind of like a trial and error for me. I think the biggest thing I learned is just how to fight through adversity. How to just look yourself in the mirror as a man and better yourself. Really just learned the importance of having good people around you.”

The four seniors can revel in the continuing development of Torrence Watson, Xavier Pinson, Javon Pickett and others who learned to follow the examples set by Geist and Puryear. They can rest easy knowing they’ve helped put an end to the one-way pipeline of players leaving the program for anywhere else, developing a tight-knit locker room in the process. And they can take pride in the never-quit attitude they helped Martin instill in his players, even during the end-of-season stretch with little to play for.

“I said it to our staff, those three young guards, they’re going to be something in our league,” Davis said. “They’re tough. They’re Cuonzo’s type of guys. They play downhill. You can tell they want to be coached, not afraid to be coached. I mean I love ‘em. I do. I think Watson has been really good. Like Breein said, Pinson was great today. They’ve got a bright future here with those perimeter players.”

The graduating class may have only one postseason appearance to show for it when all is said and done, but the path charted for this Missouri program by the next generation of Tigers will be the true indicator of this senior quartet’s impact.