Missouri men’s basketball finds positives in response during Auburn loss

The Tigers collected themselves and came back from an early 14-point deficit.

Missouri — and everyone else — is lucky Sharife Cooper’s team is ineligible for the NCAA tournament. Otherwise, it might have a problem on its hands.

But Cooper’s time dishing dimes and drawing fouls against the Tigers is over, at least for this season and potentially forever if he declares for the NBA draft after his freshman year. And in Missouri’s loss to Cooper, there were positives to take away.

Namely, after going down 21-9 and 30-16 in the first half, the Tigers didn’t let the game get away from them.

Instead, they came back and retook the lead. Missouri closed the gap to four points by the end of the first half and five minutes after the break, it led by seven.

“Honestly, we were able to collect ourselves, get it back together and took the lead there in the second half,” Missouri guard Dru Smith said.

Missouri was in that position only once before this season, on Dec. 30 against Tennessee. While the result was identical, the Tigers’ response was not.

Back on New Year’s Eve’s Eve, the Volunteers blew the doors off the Tigers. Missouri weathered the storm just a tad after going 23-4 midway through the first half, but at no point did the game feel at all close. Tennessee ended the first half ahead by 13 and stretched that lead to 28 with 12 minutes to go.

“I think earlier in the season, we played Tennessee, we got down early kind of like that,” Dru Smith said. “It was a little bit more, but we got down early and we weren’t able to bounce back. We responded this time and even got the lead back, so that’s one positive we can take away.”

How was Missouri able to come back? It got back to basics. The Tigers scored their first four points of their first comeback stretch by force-feeding the ball inside to Jeremiah Tilmon, which is almost always relatively successful.

Dru Smith himself also contributed, making two free throws and one three-pointer as Missouri shortened the deficit to as little as three before the half was over.

“In the second half, getting the ball inside,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “I think in the first half, we just settled down. … In the second half, playing with good pace, getting the ball inside to Tilly, and it went from there.”

Missouri tends to get itself into trouble when it takes shots off the dribble early in the shot clock, often from three-point range, and it tends to be successful when it moves the ball around, feeds Tilmon and takes layups in transition. The Tigers displayed that ethos on Tuesday night.

“We wanted to start getting the ball inside to JT,” Smith said. “We felt like we were kind of playing into how they want to play, shooting quick shots, quick threes. So we just got the ball inside a couple times, we got JT going and that got us a couple looks. Got a few stops there as well.”

Still, Missouri lost the game. As Martin said, “it just kind of spiraled” after the Tigers took the lead late in the first half. The team is undoubtedly frustrated, both with themselves for fouling way too much and with the officials for some of those foul calls being more than questionable.

But think about it this way: Missouri’s high-ceiling, low-floor players — Xavier Pinson and Mark Smith — both put up one of their worst performances of the season. The Tigers shot six of 25 from three on the night. Yet they were within striking distance until the very end.

Missouri competed throughout the night and lost as road underdogs to a point guard who has played like the best player in the SEC since he’s arrived, and who they’ll never have to play again. As far as concerning losses go — and Missouri has had two this season — this wasn’t one of them.

“I think one positive is just the way that we were able to respond there at the end of the first half,” Dru Smith said. “We kind of changed the momentum.”

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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