The Missouri Tigers improved 4-0 on Wednesday night by defeating the Liberty Flames at home, but the victory did not come without some adversity.
Neither team got off to a fast start. At the first media timeout, the score was deadlocked at 8, and it seemed like Liberty’s attempts to slow the pace of the game down were working.
For the Tigers, they’d come out of that timeout flat. Another 5:50 came off the clock before Mizzou scored their next points. In that time, Liberty extended their lead to 8 points behind strong outside shooting.
Cuonzo Martin’s team responded, momentarily cutting into the Liberty lead, but turnovers and poor defending helped Liberty extend their lead again, this time to 11.
Fortunately for the Tigers, they stopped the bleeding and went into halftime down just 4 points. For the Flames, the first half went almost exactly to plan, and for the Tigers, they were just happy to be down only 32-28 after 10 first half turnovers.
The difference between the two teams at halftime was clear. Liberty was shooting over 40% from deep and had 5 makes, whereas the Tigers shot just 11%. The sole Tigers make came with under a minute after Mark Smith finally broke the seal and cut Liberty’s lead to 4.
The one stat the Tigers did dominate was rebounding. At intermission, the Tigers had a near 2-1 advantage on the glass, but nothing to show for it on the scoreboard.
Mizzou came out of the locker room and got an instant spark when Dru Smith converted a 3-point play. A Mark Smith three just a few plays later would give the Tigers their first lead since early in the first at 35-34.
After numerous lead changes throughout the majority of the first 10 mins of the second half, a controversial 3-play sequence that resulted in the Tigers accumulating multiple fouls fired up Mizzou Arena. Despite being nowhere near full capacity, the fans made their presence known, and the players responded to the cheers. Led by two Mark Smith 3-pointers, the Tigers went on a 10-2 run to give themselves a 54-47 point lead with 7:39 remaining.
After the game, Smith said, “[The crowd] definitely helped out a lot… that little boost they gave us definitely helped, even on the defensive end.”
Aided by that boost from the crowd, Mizzou locked in. Thanks to outstanding hustle plays, the Tigers were able to display their potent transition offense, and Liberty had no answer. Big plays from Xavier Pinson, Mark Smith, and Jeremiah Tilmon highlighted the Tiger run that put the game out of reach for the Flames.
Liberty continued to battle, but it was too little, too late. At the sound of the final buzzer, the scoreboard read 69-60 in favor of the Tigers.
For the Tigers, it was The Law Firm that got it done. Mark Smith led the way with 17, Dru Smith added 14, and Xavier Pinson polished off the backcourt’s performance with 12 of his own.
Jeremiah Tilmon might’ve only had 8 points, but his energy was infectious in the second half. He ended up grabbing nine rebounds, but 4 were on the offensive glass. Mark Smith was the benefactor of a couple of those offensive rebounds, and he said, “It carries over… all five guys bring that energy he’s bringing,” when asked about Jeremiah’s effort.
After the game, Cuonzo Martin acknowledged that the Tigers knew this game would likely be their toughest test yet. “We felt like this would be the one, even though it’s at home, [we knew] it would be a tough one.”
Now that Cuonzo and Co. have passed this test, they’ll face their toughest test of this young season when they welcome No. 6 Illinois to Mizzou Arena on Saturday.