The theme of tonight’s ball game was redemption. Redemption from the last outing against Tennessee, individual redemption from past performances, and the idea that this Missouri Tiger basketball team is capable of more than what’s expected.
“If you have to find extra ways to motivate a guy who lost a basketball game... if you don’t hate losing then why are you doing this? If I have to give extra motivation to guys because they lost, then they’re probably in the wrong program.” That was head coach Cuonzo Martin’s message on Friday as his team geared up for a rematch against the 6th ranked Tennessee Volunteers. Missouri was torn apart by Tennessee in their first matchup by a score of 73-53. There was a lid on the basket that night as the Tigers shot a dismal 36.4% from the field. Tonight, the Tigers came out the gates with something to prove.
Missouri jumped out to an early 9-3 lead, in large part thanks to five Tennessee turnovers before the first media timeout and a back-to-back missed opportunities at the charity stripe. Point guard, Xavier Pinson managed to get involved early for the Tigers after not recording a field goal on Tuesday versus the South Carolina Gamecocks. Pinson was an offensive juggernaut in the first half. “X is effective when he’s going north and south,” Coach Martin said in the post-game. “I thought he played well.”
Additionally, Tennessee had a +6.5 turnover margin coming into today’s matchup, but the Vols were plagued by a series of mishaps through the first twenty minutes. Tennessee’s John Fulkerson turned the ball over 4 times alone by the second media timeout, and had five turnovers total in the first half. The Tigers took full advantage of this and had a grip on the Volunteers early, leading by a score of 15-5. The Volunteers only had 14 total turnovers in their first matchup against the Tigers back on December 30th; tonight they had 11 in the first half. “We wanted to make sure they put the ball on the floor,” Dru Smith said. Still, despite an excessive amount of turnovers, Tennessee hung around due to hot three-point shooting, because they are undeniably a good team when they aren’t turning the ball over.
Missouri answered the call with an impressive 6-12 shooting performance from three in the first half, however. The Tigers’ largest lead of the first half (13) was cut to just 3 at one point, but Xavier Pinson refused to take his foot off the gas. Pinson had a stellar first half performance with 19 points on 8-10 shooting, and was a perfect 3-3 from deep. Dru Smith joined the scoring fiesta as well, and had 13 first half points of of his own. He had two consecutive threes down the stretch of the first half to keep Missouri out in front.
The final ten minutes of the first half turned into quite the shoot-out, but the Tigers went into the break hanging on to a 40-34 lead. Xavier Pinson and Dru Smith had 32 of those points. “We watched plenty of film from last game and it wasn’t pretty,” Dru Smith said in the post-game. “That first one against Tennessee was ugly.” Smith and Pinson certainly did their part tonight.
The second half began with Pinson immediately getting to the free throw line, and his two makes put him at 21 points and counting—the first time a player has scored more than 20 points against the Vols all season. Pinson explained in the post-game that his focus was just to keep getting shots up. “It’s all a mental thing,” Pinson said.
The game noticeably slowed down as the second half grudged on, but Missouri remained in front throughout. The Tigers became the beneficiary of Tennessee fouling, and were quickly in the 1-and-1 bonus before the second media timeout. Javon Pickett quietly recorded his first points of the night as he continued the hot trend from three, putting the Tigers back in front by double digits with just over ten minutes to play. Headed into the second media timeout of the half, Missouri led 56-45. Kobe Brown resumed play at the line following a flagrant-one foul, and extended the Tigers’ lead back to 13.
The game evolved into a defensive contest in the second, as Missouri looked to hang on to their lead. Pinson’s first half performance died down in the second, but X still contributed a healthy 8 second-half points. The Tigers were additionally propelled by 12 offensive rebounds. Players like Kobe Brown didn’t do much on the scoreboard, but had 2 steals and 3 offensive rebounds to help keep the Tigers in front down the stretch. Coach Martin said that he challenged Kobe Brown and Mitchell Smith at halftime to continue to play aggressive despite not contributing points. Brown and Smith combined for 12 total rebounds by the night’s end.
Jeremiah Tilmon had a quieter night as well, likely due to the Vols’ constant double and triple teaming, but still put up 9 points and 5 boards. Tilmon had two missed dunks tonight, one in each half, but it ultimately wouldn’t matter in the long run, as Tennessee faithful began leaving the building with just over a minute to go in the game. When the clock finally hit zero, it was Missouri who led. The Tigers redeemed themselves tonight and walked out victorious by a score of 73 to 64. The Volunteers never led.
Following the game, Coach Martin briefly discussed where he thought his team is at, at this point in the season. “I don’t need to look at the scoreboard to see how we play,” Coach explained. “I think the biggest key is, if we take care of the ball, we’re as good as anybody.” Coach also noted how having an experienced group of guys that spend time together in the offseason benefits play on the court. “They really challenge each other... they’re not afraid to ruffle each other’s feathers.” Tonight’s gutsy road performance puts the Tigers at 10-2 on the season (4-2 in SEC, 2nd in conference).