The Missouri Tigers visited the Swamp tonight in search of a much needed win to get their season back on track, and that’s exactly what they found. Missouri fans have been getting pretty used to tight matchups this year, and tonight’s contest was nothing new.
Things didn’t start quite the way Cuonzo Martin had envisioned this evening, as he quickly found his team down 0-7 out the gates, though Missouri immediately responded with their own 8-0 run in response. “It’s not easy to play on the road,” Martin explained in the post-game. “When we play on our heels, we’re not a very good team.”
The Gators and Tigers appeared to be a pretty even matchup through the second media timeout of the first half, exchanging leads six times. Turnovers were a problem early for both sides, and neither team was fully able to take advantage of the other’s mistakes early on.
After working to keep things close, Missouri managed to take the lead down the stretch, surging in the last two minutes, thanks to some hot three-point shooting from Xavier Pinson, which helped Missouri extend its lead during a 14-2 run. Pinson, who has been quiet offensively as of late, broke out of his shell and tallied nine first half points for Missouri.
Missouri’s defense was also on display, and put up multiple impressive stands, holding the Gators to a shot clock violation twice. Defend, Rebound and Play as hard as you can play — the three components Cuonzo Martin preaches to his team night in and night out. “When our defense is set, we’re as good as anyone in America,” Martin said.
Florida did themselves no favors with a monster fifteen first half turnovers, leaving the door open for Missouri to take a seven point lead by half’s end— a lead they wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the game. “It’s easy to run when you get live ball turnovers,” Dru Smith mentioned in the post-game.
Smith demonstrated why he ranks number one in steals in the entire SEC, collecting five steals before the half’s end to go along with nine points. “That just my role, really,” he explained. “If I don’t do that, it will look like I’m not playing hard.”
Mark Smith had a productive first half for the Tigers as well, putting up nine of Missouri’s 36 points. We are all well aware of Mark’s struggles this season, but his play the last few weeks has been far superior then what we had been seeing.
“Mark has been great the last four games,” Martin explained. “I thought he passed up a few shots tonight. When guys work as hard as he works...he’ll be okay.”
Missouri opened the half by extending its lead up to ten, but Florida wouldn’t let the Tigers run away with it, putting together their own little run the keeps things within striking distance. Tre Mann was the primary catalyst for Florida tonight, and his hot start to begin the second half turned the momentum in the Gators’ favor, as Missouri clung onto a 43-40 lead after the first media timeout of the half. Mann finished with 21 points, which led all scorers throughout the evening.
Fortunately for Missouri, Jeremiah Tilmon played bully-ball below the rim, and Florida had virtually no answer for him. Tilmon wasn’t great from the charity stripe, but his near perfect percentage from the field kept the Gators in check throughout the game. Where Tilmon was most effective, however — even though it didn’t always show up on the stat sheet — was in his decision making. Tilmon faced multiple double teams in the paint, but did a fantastic job kicking the ball out to open guards, leading to multiple points. When Tilmon got a touch, good things happened.
Coach Martin expressed in the post-game that he’d actually like to see Jeremiah be more aggressive in the paint and under the basket going forward. “He has to be more demanding with his presence,” Martin said. Still, Missouri’s big man finished with 12 points and five boards in an effective performance.
The Gators kept things close as time trudged on, in large part thanks to some much needed second half ball protection— the Gators only gave Missouri the ball three times in the second half after a horrendous first half. By the under eight media timeout, Missouri only led by three, and right out the break Florida cut the Tigers’ lead to just one point. Thankfully, Xavier Pinson responded with a three to keep Missouri out in front as the game entered crunch time.
With time scarce and the score margin minimal, things took an unexpected turn as Tilmon picked up his fourth personal foul with four minutes left to play. With Tilmon sitting, Missouri found other ways to produce. Four of Missouri’s five starters put points up in the double digits by night’s end, which ultimately helped keep the Tigers out in front down the line.
The story off the bench tonight was none other than Mitchell Smith, who played a gritty game below the rim for Missouri, and his stat sheet proved it. Mitchell Smith came up with four offensive rebounds and tallied an impressive 14 points off the bench.
“He [Mitchell] gave it up tonight,” Martin explained in the post-game. “When he’s engaged, he’s as good as any power forward in our conference. I’m happy to see him play well because he deserves to play well.”
Missouri led by four points with just under a minute to play, and the Gators cut the lead down again, this time to just two points following a successful trip to the line, resulting in a Missouri timeout. Up 70-68 with 42.6 seconds and with the possession arrow in their favor, Missouri elected to run the clock and hold the ball in search of a good shot. Florida put the clamps on defensively, however, and the Tigers bricked a shot, immediately followed by another Tilmon foul below the rim. That foul ultimately sent Tilly to the bench for the remainder of the night, as he fouled out. Colin Castleton calmly hit two free throws for the Gators to tie things at 70.
Martin elected to burn one final timeout before the final play of tonight’s ball game, and according to Dru Smith, the game’s final play was exactly as it was drawn up in the huddle.
Now tied, Missouri had the ball and 15 seconds to either win the game or go to overtime. Xavier Pinson dribbled at the top of the key as time wound down until he ultimately dished it to Dru Smith, who made a spectacular drive to the rim and finished a difficult reverse layup to take the lead with less than a second remaining.
“That’s a play Coach drew up in the timeout,” Dru described. “I just thought if I went up on the first side, Duruji would have [blocked] it.”
Mitchell Smith, who had a breakout night and career high in points had zero doubts as time was expiring. “That’s Dru Smith. At the end of the day, I’ve got the most confidence in Dru.”
Florida had 0.7 seconds to make a miracle happen, but it wasn’t meant to be and Missouri escaped in dramatic fashion by a score of 72-70, notching their first ever win in Gainesville. Coach Martin was noticeably exuberant in tonight’s post-game interview.
“I’m happy for our guys, it’s tough to win on the road,” Martin said. “There hasn’t been a game this year we stepped on the floor I didn’t think we couldn’t win.”
Missouri will look to close out its regular season strong at home versus LSU on Saturday.