No. 19 Missouri men’s basketball exacted revenge on No. 6 Tennessee after conference-opening loss

The Tigers had the advantage in nearly every statistical category to secure the win after losing by 20 to the Volunteers on Dec. 30.

After rocketing to No. 12 in the AP Top 25 in non-conference play, Missouri men’s basketball got knocked down a peg with a 73-53 home loss to then-No. 7 Tennessee.

Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin made it clear on Friday that his players didn’t need any extra motivation going into Saturday’s game in Knoxville, Tenn.

“If you don't hate losing, then why are you really doing this?” Martin said. “That has to pain you just to lose a game; whether it’s at the buzzer or you lose by 15 to 20. If I have to give some extra motivation to guys because they lost then they’re probably the wrong program.”

The 20-point loss from less than a month ago was all the inspiration Missouri needed to pull out a defining 73-64 win at the Thompson-Boling Arena.

The Tigers opened up the rematch with a grueling defense that forced Tennessee to open up the game with five turnovers in its first seven possessions. Missouri capitalized by grabbing the lead with a transition layup from senior guard Mark Smith on a crafty lay-in from junior guard Xavier Pinson.

“We didn't want to come out slow or stagnant,” redshirt senior guard Dru Smith said. “They jumped out on us quickly at home, so we knew we wanted to pick up that defensive pressure this time. We were able to get a couple live ball turnovers there at the beginning to get out and run.”

The suffocating defense helped Missouri open the game on a 17-5 run through 8:50, as its defensive zeal carried over to the other end of the court like it has so many times for the Tigers this season.

“We set a tone getting into passing lanes and being aggressive,” Martin said. “If they were going to beat us, they were gonna beat us playing that way we want to dictate the tempo. I thought [our] guys did a great job of embracing that challenge.”

It looked like the patented Missouri men’s basketball formula: Grit out battles in the post and play hard-nosed defense to secure a victory.

Then the Tigers changed up their winning strategy — they started making 3-pointers.

It started out well enough with a 3 from redshirt senior guard Dru Smith to make it 9-3.

Then Pinson made one.

Then another one.

And another one.

Missouri went an unheard of 6-12 from 3-point land in the first half to stave off Tennessee, which worked its way back into the game after its turnover problems subsided. While the Volunteers pulled away with strong 3-point shooting early in late December, Missouri kept pace with a strong performance in its own right.

Both Pinson and Dru Smith knocked down three first half 3s that kept Tennessee away once the Volunteers stopped turning the ball over for 70% of their possessions, and Missouri started to look like the team that won by 20.

“I think it's just doing them with confidence,” Dru Smith said. “A couple of them were a little more open on some of those passes where Tilmon was throwing them the post. I think it’s just sort of a confidence thing, and if you see a few go down early, that always helps.”

Pinson concluded the half with 19 points, just one away from becoming the first opposing player to drop 20 points on Tennessee all season.

“I wasn't paying attention to it, but I felt that I was doing pretty well on the basis of what I was doing,” Pinson said.

Both teams continued to shoot well from beyond the arc in the second half, but in an odd twist, both teams had difficulty making shots inside. Tennessee went 5:08 without a field goal while Missouri went 5:19 in the midpoint of the second half.

The Tigers turned up the scoring and kept Tennessee at least two possessions away the entire half. Despite a late surge from the Volunteers, Missouri sank its free throws to seal its third Southeastern Conference road win of the season.

Pinson finished with a season-high 27 points while Dru Smith quietly added 18 points with no turnovers.

Missouri bested Tennessee in every significant statistic on Saturday night. The Tigers forced more turnovers, grabbed more rebounds and made a higher percentage of 3-pointers to pick up their third ranked win this season.

“I said to our guys, ’A top 10 team won the game today,’” Martin said. “We've earned it against the top 10 team in a tough environment, so hopefully people do the right things and recognize the work we've put in.”

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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