‘We gotta nip this in the bud right now’: Missouri men’s basketball holds off South Carolina

The Tigers weathered an early second-half storm and beat the Gamecocks 93-78 to halt a three-game losing streak.

When South Carolina shortened Missouri’s once-19-point lead to seven midway through the second half on Saturday, any Tigers fan could have been forgiven for thinking, “Here we go again.”

But Missouri — a team justifiably criticized for failing to hold onto large second-half leads — decided that this game would be different. The Tigers went on a 19-6 run, effectively icing the game and ending their three-game losing streak with a 93-78 win in the other Columbia.

“We all came together, and we said, ‘We gotta nip this in the bud right now, like we gotta get it back rolling,’” guard Mark Smith said. “And I think that’s exactly what we did.”

The Tigers moved to 14-6 overall and regained an above .500 record in SEC play with three games left in the regular season.

“It’s great for our guys to get that win, because we’ve been in those situations before, and it kind of went south for us,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Just to regroup; settle down, let’s lock in on what we need to do and find a way to win the game, because again, you don’t want to be in that situation, but it’ll help you down the road because you’ve been there.”

Dru Smith, Mark Smith and the return of Jeremiah Tilmon fueled Missouri’s second-half run. Tilmon kick-started it by knocking down two free throws — something he struggled to do all season — before taking a two-game leave of absence following a death in the family.

A written tribute on the back of Tilmon’s shoes indicated that the senior forward lost his grandmother just months after losing his other grandmother to COVID-19.

Tilmon didn’t start — the team wanted to bring him back slowly and limit his minutes — but he showed why the Tigers are a different team without him. The big man put up 17 points on five-of-five shooting and all seven of his free throws, including the two that started the run.

“If you had to pick four guys in our conference, the MVP-level guys, he was that guy before he left,” Martin said. “And if he’s making free throws like that, it’s extremely hard [to defend him].”

After Tilmon’s free throws, Dru Smith did what Dru Smith does best: take the ball away. He ran the floor and put the ball in the basket, drawing a foul in the process. That and-one put the Tigers back up by double digits, and they didn’t let their lead dip below that mark for the rest of the game.

Despite playing with four fouls throughout much of the second half, Dru Smith guided Missouri’s offense with a steady hand again. The Tigers were plus-17 in 31 minutes with him on the court.

Also plus-17 for the Tigers: Mark Smith, who provided a burst of scoring toward the end of the 19-6 run.

A layup in transition, a short jumper that he created with a physical drive and a three-pointer — one of three he made in the game on five shots — pushed the game out of reach for South Carolina.

“That’s what happens when we move the ball; we share the ball the way we shared it today, in most cases that’s what you’ll see from Mark Smith and Dru Smith,” Martin said. “Because now they’re trying to get shots and get opportunities as opposed to trying to hunt for shots.”

Mark Smith is constantly lauded for his effort but also constantly plagued with horrific shooting games this season like a zero-for-eight showing against Arkansas. Slowly, though, he’s starting to look like himself again.

“He looks like he’s back to being confident and being the Mark Smith that we all know and that we love to play with,” Dru Smith said.

Missouri will look to avoid dropping back to .500 in SEC play on Tuesday, when they’ll face Ole Miss. The Rebels started the losing streak that the Tigers just snapped, blowing them out in Oxford, Mississippi two weeks ago.

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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