Tale of two halves: Missouri men’s basketball blows double-digit halftime lead, loses to Mississippi State

Missouri fell to 1-2 in Southeastern Conference play by way of a second half scoring ambush from D.J. Stewart Jr. and Iverson Molinar.

If the contest between Missouri men’s basketball and Mississippi State ended after the first half, the Tigers would be heading back to Columbia with their eighth win in the season.

But that’s not how basketball works.

Missouri squandered a double-digit halftime lead after playing one of the best halves of basketball of the season when the Tigers couldn’t make a stop and left Humphrey Coliseum with a crushing 78-63 loss.

“The one thing I said to my staff after the game is, ‘What happened?’” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said.

Coach Cuonzo Martin’s squad put up arguably its most complete offensive performance in SEC play in Martin’s tenure. Missouri turned the ball over only once in the first half, shot 50% and scored 15 points off turnovers.

Mississippi State gave Missouri a glimpse of what was to come in the second half early as the Bulldogs sank their first three shots, including a bouncy alley-oop to redshirt sophomore D.J. Stewart Jr.. Coach Ben Howland’s squad held the lead for first 7:32, but the Tigers kept it close.

Then, Missouri went on a 10-2 run. Minutes later, there was a 7-0 run. Finally, Missouri claimed a 14-point advantage with a 12-0 run.

Everyone who checked in for the Tigers made a positive impact during the first 20 minutes. Junior guard Javon Pickett looked like he was primed for another productive outing off the bench with seven points before you could look up the meaning behind “StarkVegas”.

Senior forward Jeremiah Tilmon and junior guard Xavier Pinson continued to connect from the Arkansas game from last weekend. Pinson reeled off some great feeds, including a jaw-dropping behind the back pass, to Missouri’s premier big man for clinical two-hand jams. Tilmon finished the half with eight points and Pinson was on pace for a career-high in assists, which he broke in the second half.

The Bulldogs made it a single-digit deficit before the end of the half, but the Tigers pushed the lead to a dozen when Pinson hit two free throws in the closing moments of the half.

Missouri’s second half started promisingly enough with two layups from Tilmon and redshirt senior guard Dru Smith. The Tigers missed two shots in the opening two minutes, but the lead sat at 14 points and they opened shooting on par with their first half performance.

Then, the bottom fell out.

The Tigers coughed the ball up three times in the first six minutes of the new half, a deviation from the otherworldly ball control of the first half.

Mississippi State retook the lead with a Stewart stepback to cap off a 15-0 run where Missouri had some open shots but clanked every single one off the rim.

The SEC nemeses traded baskets and the lead through the middle chunk of the half as the Tigers tried to regain control after a dreadful opening, but the momentum was firmly in the hands of the Bulldogs, whose bench and limited crowd gained energy like they had received fresh batteries at halftime.

Stewart Jr. hit a beautiful between the legs stepback to draw a three-point play as the Bulldogs retook the lead for good with 9:23 left to play.

Mississippi State sealed the game’s fate with a 16-4 run which was highlighted by a high-flying alley-oop from freshman Cameron Matthews similar to Stewart Jr.’s as the Tigers tried to find out the answer to Martin’s question: what happened?

The Bulldogs outscored Missouri 51-24 in the second half and they didn’t need to chuck up threes at the same rate as the NBA Three-Point Contest. Howland’s brigade shot two threes and made one of them. Most of the made shots came from the mid-range where seemingly no one could miss.

“They were just hot,” Tilmon said. “They’re at their house. They were taking a lot of tough shots and were getting to the basket easier than in the first half, and we just couldn’t stop them.”

On Tuesday, the Tigers had the Bulldogs in their paws for the first 20 minutes. They had a solid, nay great chance to pick up their second significant conference road win in as many games. But great mid-range shooting and an inability to get the lid off the basket doomed Missouri.

Now that Missouri is ranked, it has gone from the hunters as scrappy underdogs looking to make statements — like it did last year at home against No. 11 Auburn — to being the hunted. The Tigers are now a team to beat in the SEC and have been served two different yet equally stomach-churning doses of reality early in conference play.

“We already know that we got a target on that bag and we got to play like that,” Tilmon said. “We’re gonna get everybody's best game when it comes to playing, especially on the road, so we got to do our job and make sure that we always throw the first punch because we’re always going to get everybody else’s best.”

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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