Bench minutes from Mitchell Smith proved important in Missouri men’s basketball win over Liberty

The redshirt senior forward led the team in plus-minus in the first half of a vital victory before Braggin’ Rights.

The starting Smiths, Mark and Dru, paced the team in scoring during Wednesday’s victory over the Liberty Flames. But while their collective contributions were important, it was a different Smith — redshirt senior forward Mitchell Smith — whose presence on the court served as the catalyst for the Tigers’ 69-60 victory.

“Mitchell Smith to me is like the credit card,” coach Cuonzo Martin said after the win. “You can't leave home without it.”

Mitchell Smith produced a respectable stat sheet with six points and seven boards, but his biggest impact was intangible. The big man’s defensive versatility was invaluable against a crafty and 3-point heavy Liberty team.

Early in the game, senior forward Jeremiah Tilmon got the start as he did the first three games, but struggled to get to the perimeter when Liberty forwards Blake Preston and Kyle Rode shot from 3.

Tilmon is in his element when he is guarding the team’s best big man on the low block, not at the top of the key.

“For a big guy like Jeremiah Tilmon, having to defend four men that pick and pop, that's a hard thing to do to stop the ball off a ball screen and try to recover to your guy,” Martin said. “It puts you in scramble situations.”

The defensive lapses were not just all Tilmon’s fault, and Liberty coach Ritchie McKay should get a lot of credit. Many shot opportunities were uncontested underneath the basket on some great feeds from Liberty’s guards and there were a lot of prime 3-point shot opportunities that Liberty pounced on.

Martin said the matchup against the Princeton offense, a free-flowing offense that relies on constant movement from all five players on the court and is reliant on well-timed cuts, would be the toughest battle his team faced before Illinois.

“When you see it live, you get a feel for it,” Martin said.” But just in how they play, we felt like this would be the one that even though it's at home, it will be a tough one.”

When Mitchell Smith checked in, he changed the course of Liberty’s offense. Where Tilmon had issues defending away from the basket, Mitchell Smith excelled at limiting perimeter shot opportunities while also maintaining a strong presence around the rim.

Even though the Tigers trailed 32-28 at the half, Missouri was plus-10 in the scoring margin during that half when Mitchell Smith was on the court. Only two other players, Dru Smith and Drew Buggs, recorded a positive plus-minus ratio in the first half, and it was only plus-two for both of them.

Mitchell Smith carried his strong performance into the second half and the rest of the team followed the big man from Van Buren, Arkansas. Missouri started out the first half hot then traded leads back and forth with Liberty for around eight minutes.

After picking up an iffy blocking foul, Mitchell Smith went down to the other end for a two-handed flush to give Missouri a two-score advantage that they never gave up.

Later in the second half, Liberty’s Darius McGhee, the 5-foot-9-inch guard who leads Liberty in scoring on the year, lured Mitchell Smith out to the perimeter off an offensive rebound.

In most cases, with a speedy guard matched up against a 6-foot-10-inch big man, that would be considered a mismatch. However, he was up for the task and didn’t allow McGhee to drive by him or create a shot.

Mitchell “The Credit Card” Smith might not have been a preseason all-SEC team player like Dru Smith or SEC Player of the Week like Mark Smith, but when the Tigers needed someone who could get the “invisible money,” as Martin likes to call it, all the coach had to do was pull out his wallet and max out Mitchell Smith.

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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