PowerMizzou - Game at a Glance: Geist leads Mizzou as Tigers keep season alive
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Game at a Glance: Geist leads Mizzou as Tigers keep season alive

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NASHVILLE — Sitting on a bench in the Missouri locker room after the Tigers’ win over Georgia, Jordan Geist looked relaxed. Geist leaned backward and cracked a joke about his confidence — referencing a quote he made after Missouri beat Central Florida in December, when he said he has “big kahunas” — and introducing the public to a new nickname for center Reed Nikko: “the Big Chorizo.”

Geist had just scored a career-high 30 points, willing Missouri to a 71-61 win over Georgia in the first round of the SEC Tournament. The victory extended the Tigers’ season and Geist’s college career. Whenever Missouri needed a score in a game that was closer than the score indicated, it went to Geist. His postgame demeanor seemed striking since, less than an hour earlier, it looked like he might be playing his final game in a Missouri uniform. But it also reflected his play on the court: He wasn’t intimidated by the moment; he welcomed it.

“I got a lot of confidence in myself,” Geist said. “I just go out there and just try to play.”

Geist and freshman point guard Xavier Pinson, who finished with 15 points, buoyed Missouri offensively, while backup big men Nikko and Mitchell Smith pitched in important minutes on the defensive end against Georgia forward Nicolas Claxton. The win earned Missouri a second-round matchup against five-seed Auburn, which will tip off around 2:30 p.m. on Thursday.

Jordan Geist scored a career-high 30 points in Missouri's win over Georgia in the SEC Tournament. (USA TODAY)
Jordan Geist scored a career-high 30 points in Missouri's win over Georgia in the SEC Tournament. (USA TODAY) (USA Today Sports Images)

Missouri stifled Georgia in a 64-39 win just a week ago, but didn’t get off to a great start this Wednesday. The Tigers got called for 12 fouls in the first half, leading to 12 points from the free throw line for the Bulldogs. At one point in the half, Pinson, Geist, Nikko and Jeremiah Tilmon all had at least two fouls. Tilmon drew his second foul with 9:41 remaining in the half, sending him to the bench. With Tilmon off the floor, Claxton began to assert himself and sparked a run for the Bulldogs. The 6-foot-11 forward scored nine of his 11 points in the game between Tilmon picking up foul number two and halftime. Georgia outscored Missouri 22-13 during that span and took a two-point lead into the break.

“We were a step slow defensively, especially on the perimeter, defending those guys,” head coach Cuonzo Martin said. “(Pinson) got in foul trouble, Jeremiah got in foul trouble in the first half, so it was tough for us to get into a real flow, an offensive flow. In the second half, we settled in, made plays and got stops, the game kind of changed for us.”

Missouri succeeded in taking Claxton out of the game in the second half, thanks in large part to Smith. He and Puryear challenged each other to do a better job keeping Claxton from catching the ball near the rim, and Smith drew two charges on Claxton in the second half. Claxton ultimately fouled out with 2:58 to play.

“Once we saw Claxton getting a lot of confidence out there, we couldn’t go for none of that,” Smith said. “So me and Kevin looked at each other and we said, we have to shut him down, so that’s why he wasn’t really doing anything in the second half.”

On the offensive end, the Tigers just kept giving the ball to Pinson and Geist. With Missouri leading by two points with 12 minutes to play, Geist made a trademark bank shot off a pivot in the lane, then hit a three-pointer off the dribble a few possessions later. A transition layup plus a foul extended Missouri’s lead to seven points.

Martin said coming into the game he thought the Tiger point guards would be able to score by driving to the basket. Once Geist got going, he saw no need to change the strategy.

“I think that we’ve kind of been good at attacking ball screens,” Geist said. “We played (Georgia) two games ago, and you can kind of just key off that. Teams really don’t change too much after that, so that’s what we saw in the first game and tried to replicate it.”

“Coach kept calling really the same sequence of plays because they weren’t stopping Jordan off the dribble,” Puryear said.

For the second time in as many games against Georgia this year, Geist scored 14 points in the paint — a high number for a guard. He also added 10 points at the free throw line Wednesday. Martin said that’s a testament to Geist’s toughness and guile. He called Geist “a decent athlete, not a stiff,” but acknowledged Geist got some of his buckets against Georgia thanks to his willingness to bang bodies with Georgia’s big frontcourt..

“He's as tough as anybody,” Martin said. “I don't really gauge a guy on his talent level as far as how high he can jump. He's battle tested, he competes, and he'll fight anybody.”

Geist knows that, whenever Missouri loses this week, his college career will almost certainly end. Certainly that serves as motivation to keep winning, but Geist has his eyes further down the road. Asked about the importance of Wednesday’s game, Geist talked not about the end of his own days in a Missouri uniform, but how the win will benefit the Tigers when he’s gone.

“We’re trying to lay some foundation right now for the young guys,” Geist said. “Just coming out here, getting a win, showing the young guys what it feels like to get wins here, how difficult it is to get wins, but how grateful you have to be when you get one. So you come here, you’re just trying to lay a foundation for them.”

Backup center Reed Nikko chipped in six important points for Missouri against Georgia. (USA TODAY)
Backup center Reed Nikko chipped in six important points for Missouri against Georgia. (USA TODAY) (USA Today Sports Images)

TURNING POINT: Missouri and Georgia traded buckets to open the second half, and Georgia tied the game up with 12:17 to go when Jordan Harris hit a three and then Derek Ogbeide drew a foul and made one of two free throws. But the Tigers promptly regained the lead when Puryear hit a jumper from the elbow. Geist then got into the lane, pivoted, pump-faked and scored, and the following possession, Smith scored and drew a foul. Ogbeide answered with a score, but Geist sunk a three-pointer off the dribble on Missouri’s following possession to extend Missouri’s lead to seven and regain the momentum.

IT WAS OVER WHEN: Trailing by eight points with less than three minutes left, Georgia had two open looks from three-point range. The Bulldogs missed both and then, with 1:23 left, had to start fouling. After Torrence Watson hit two free throws to extend the Tiger lead to 10, the result was effectively decided.

CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM: Missouri pulled out a win without Tilmon being much of a factor, something it hasn’t been able to say often this season. Entering Wednesday, the team was 2-6 when Tilmon scored six points or fewer. He scored just four against Georgia, in part due to foul trouble and in part due to the Bulldogs’ length, but the Tigers still won the rebounding battle and scored 10 more points in the paint.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN: Missouri almost certainly won’t face another opponent in this tournament that shoots four-for-19 from three point range and misses 15 free throws (not to mention two dunks). The Tigers got by against a less-talented Georgia team despite playing a B-minus or C-plus game. Against Auburn tomorrow, they will need to tighten up the perimeter defense and commit fewer than 24 fouls.

STOCK UP: Mitchell Smith and Reed Nikko. After Tilmon went to the bench in the first half, Nikko helped keep the score close with six huge points. Smith not only guarded Claxton well in the second half, but scored six points of his own, including two free-throw-line jumpers that contributed to Georgia switching out of a zone defense. Tilmon has been so important to Missouri all year in part due to the lack of production behind him, but Nikko and Smith rendered Tilmon’s foul trouble Wednesday a non-factor.

STOCK DOWN: Javon Pickett. Pickett re-entered the starting lineup Wednesday after missing Saturday’s game due to a back injury, but he did not look sharp. Pickett didn’t score, missing all five of his shots, and turned the ball over twice in 22 minutes.

UP NEXT: Missouri (14-15, KenPom No. 70) will face fifth-seeded Auburn (22-9, KenPom No. 14). Tipoff is set for 30 minutes after the conclusion of the game between Florida and Alabama.