Missouri men’s basketball rebounds from rough first half to take down Liberty

Missouri men’s basketball rebounds from rough first half to take down Liberty

With six seconds remaining in the first half, Missouri guard Mark Smith received a pass on the left wing, his team trailing 32-25.

The Tigers had shot eight 3-pointers up to that point and missed every single one of them. But as Smith started to fire away for the ninth, the defender in front of him fell down. That was all the room “Ocean Gang” needed.

Smith’s three — the first of four he made in the game — pulled the Tigers to within four. They scored the next seven out of halftime and never looked back, defeating Liberty 69 to 60.

“It’s like taking a math exam, at least for me,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “I knew I had to pass that class but boy, it was a good one.”

The win gave Missouri a 4-0 record heading into a marquee “Braggin’ Rights” matchup with No. 6 Illinois on Saturday.

“We felt like this would be [the most difficult] out of those four [games to start the season],” Martin said, referencing a slate that included No. 21 Oregon. “Not necessarily talent — everybody’s talented — but just how they play.”

How they play: shoot first, ask questions later. Four different Flames combined for five 3-pointers in the first half, making it difficult to key in on just one shooter. Shooting so often made it easier to take care of the ball, as the Flames spent most of the half without a turnover.

Missouri, on the other hand, gave the ball away 10 times in the first 20 minutes, with guard Xavier Pinson responsible for four of them.

Liberty caused the Tigers problems with the way they defended center Jeremiah Tilmon. The 6-10 center had at least three inches on every Liberty starter, but the Flames countered the height difference by double-teaming him almost every time he touched the ball.

“If the ball comes my way, I just gotta make sure I catch the ball, regardless of the height advantage or not,” Tilmon said. “So if they’re not getting the ball to me, I shouldn’t hold my head down.”

Tilmon passed it out to the open man when that happened, but that strategy requires his teammates to make their shots. They did not.

“[We had] to really settle down,” Martin said. “We were stagnant in the first half, really weren’t moving the ball. It’s more me than the guys…. We got caught up in trying to get the ball inside to Tilly, so now guys are standing around and that’s not good.”

Missouri trailed by as many as 11 in the first half, but the tide started to turn late. Smith’s late three helped the Tigers end the half on a good note, and it also gave them a deficit that wasn’t as large as it could have been.

“We started off a little slow, but those last seven minutes I’d say we definitely came back and got to our brand of basketball,” Mark Smith said. “We had a lot of energy defensively and real awesome stops, and I think it really helped us carry right into the second half.”

The Tigers took the lead for good in the first few minutes after the break, but they put it away with a 7-0 run with about four minutes remaining in the half.

Tilmon started it off with a dunk after Pinson found him wide open on the low block. Less than a minute later, Tilmon was at it again, hustling for a loose rebound and not only saving it but finding a wide-open Mark Smith at the top of the key.

He drilled it, the crowd roared, and he roared alongside it.

“They were scrambling and it was just a perfect pass,” Smith said. “I just nailed it.”

As the Flames brought it up the floor after Smith’s three, Pinson saw an opportunity. He stole the ball from Liberty guard Chris Parker, took it to the basket and made a contested layup.

That stretch gave Missouri a 63-50 lead, effectively ending the game.

The Tigers’ win streak will be on the line on Saturday, when Illinois arrives. The Illini come in at 4-1, with their only loss to No. 2 Baylor. Ayo Dusunmu, Kofie Cockburn and company blew out No. 10 Duke on Tuesday, proving that the Illini are as dangerous as they were projected to be.

“It’s just another game from us,” Tilmon, who is from Illinois, said. “We just gotta continue to stay on this streak.”

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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