Missouri men’s hoops wins first game after layoff

The Tigers didn’t play their best basketball, but they took care of Texas A&M in College Station.

Mark Smith made a 3-pointer late in Saturday’s game against Texas A&M. He caught a pass in the left corner, shot over his defender’s outstretched hand and put it through the bottom of the net.

For most of the game, Smith remained in the slump that has dogged him for more than a month now, and that one shot by no means gets him out of the woods yet. But much like the rest of the Tigers, who by no means played their best basketball, Smith made a play down the stretch in a comfortable, albeit not pretty, 68-52 win over Texas A&M.

The win marked No. 17 Missouri’s first victory since Jan. 2, in its first game played since Jan. 5. Missouri’s absence from the court stemmed from COVID-19 issues within its program.

“Just settling in and playing basketball,” coach Cuonzo Martin said after the game. “Maybe some of the residue after the Mississippi State game, who knows. But I don’t spend a lot of time harping on past games outside of something specific. We gotta keep moving.”

Missouri trailed 24-17 with four minutes to go in the first half, playing ugly basketball. Martin, who after Missouri’s last win over Arkansas joked about naming his grandson “Turnover,” saw his team give the ball away 10 times in the first half alone.

Many of those turnovers were self-inflicted. Whether it was Xavier Pinson dribbling the ball into traffic, off his knees and out-of-bounds or Mark Smith running the baseline in an inbounding situation that didn’t allow it, the Tigers couldn’t seem to get out of their own way.

“It’s nothing I haven’t said in the last three years,” Martin said. “You can just push plug and record, and you already know what I’m about to say when it comes to turnovers. But man, just take care of the basketball. That’s it.”

As Martin noted after the game, Texas A&M can be particularly adept at baiting opposing scorers into committing offensive fouls, as was the case this afternoon.

“What they do as good as any team in America, is when you drive the ball, they do a great job at taking charges,” Martin said. “They get in position quickly, and if you don’t make the pass and you don’t jump-stop, you’ll get a charge.”

Toward the end of the first half, however, Missouri started to improve. Javon Pickett, whose increasingly common bursts of scoring often turn the tide for the Tigers, made two consecutive baskets including a three-pointer to give Missouri the lead.

“When it’s a physical brand [of basketball], that’s up Javon’s alley,” Martin said. “It was a physical one — it was one of those ones you start out with boxing gloves on and eventually you get to playing some ball, but that’s his style of game.”

Pickett helped Missouri close the half on a 10-nothing run and capture a lead that it would not relinquish for the rest of the afternoon.

“Everybody’s been telling me to be confident in myself, shoot the ball when I’m open, keep driving it, and just going out there and playing on both ends,” Pickett said. “I feel like I did that today, and that just opened up on the offensive end.”

The Tigers were able to pull away in the second half thanks to big contributions from their most consistent players, Dru Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon.

Smith piled up 15 points in a near-complete game, playing 37 minutes, and Tilmon continued what he agreed has been the best stretch of his career. He scored a very efficient 14 points on five of six shooting and continued to make free throws at a higher rate than he previously had.

Tilmon also blocked three shots, more than he had in the rest of the season altogether, and stayed out of what had been a thorn in his side for years, including this one: foul trouble.

“No, I haven’t,” Tilmon said when asked whether he’d ever had a stretch in his career where things are clicking for him like they are right now. “I’ve just been trying my best to stay consistent.”

Perhaps the perfect encapsulation of Missouri’s offense so far this season came early in the third quarter. Pickett got the ball in the left corner, wide open for a three, but he passed it up. He drove and kicked it to Drew Buggs, who bricked his shot off the back rim.

Tilmon was there to clean up the rebound, of which he had 10, and finished the possession with a layup.

A few minutes later, Tilmon gobbled up a rebound off of an errant Torrence Watson 3-pointer and slammed it home for a put-back jam.

“No question, the best player on the floor [was Tilmon],” Martin said. “I thought he’s played well all season long, but the pace, the poise, the maturity, the things that he says in huddles make you feel proud as a coach because he’s made progress every year. You start to see his hard work pay off.”

Even the turnover issues seemed to subside in the second half. Missouri only gave it away four times after the halftime break.

“That’s who we are,” Martin said about his team’s performance in the second half. “We’re a team that shares the ball. We play together.”

Edited by Eli Hoff | ehoff@themaneater.com

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