Post-Game Report: Mizzou 69, Liberty 60
Missouri trailed most of the first half and found itself in a tight game for about 30 minutes, but the Tigers saved their best for last in a 69-60 win over Liberty on Wednesday night to run their record to 4-0.
Here is our complete post-game report, starting with five things we learned.
*When Jeremiah Tilmon is good, it's good for Missouri. The big man hadn't done a lot much of the night and Missouri at times looked better going with a smaller lineup against the Flames. But when crunch time arrived, it was Tilmon that put the game on ice for the Tigers.
Mizzou led 54-49 when Tilmon came back in the game with 6:21 to play. Twenty-six seconds later, he rebounded a Xavier Pinson miss and scored to put the Tigers up seven. Tilmon got a defensive rebound on Liberty's next possession and later added the next Missouri bucket on a dunk, pushing the lead to eight. But Tilmon's best stretch was yet to come.
With a little less than four minutes to go, Tilmon rebounded another Liberty miss. On the other end, Dru Smith couldn't convert a driving layup, but Tilmon was under the basket to grab the rebound. As he flew out of bounds, he flung the ball to an open Mark Smith at the top of the key. Smith's three put the Tigers up 61-50 with 3:47 to go and ended any real shot at Liberty's third win over an SEC team this season.
"I saw him for like a second and I was already going out of bounds and I just kind of threw it hoping nobody would intercept it," Tilmon said with a sheepish grin. "It worked out."
In just 2:34, Tilmon scored four points, grabbed four rebounds and had an assist in a 7-1 Missouri run.
"I knew I wasn’t in for a while so I just had to say locked in," Tilmon said. "Coach and them told me to stay ready so that’s all I was doing."
It wasn't just the production, but the energy in a game that at times lacked it.
"It definitely carries over to everyone how he’s been rebounding running the floor, talking on defense," Mark Smith said. "He’s definitely doing a great job on the defensive end being a great defender.
"It was infectious."
Tilmon finished the game with eight points, nine rebounds and two assists. It's not a stat line that blows anyone away, but he was Missouri's most important player down the stretch, which is something that might not have happened in the past after a three-point first half.
"We say to him you might not get the ball, but keep them alive," Martin said. "Just the maturity of a basketball player. You get to a point where it's about winning basketball games. He did a great job of just keeping balls alive."
*Mark Smith has the green light. Smith made four of his eight three-point attempts on the night. For the season, he's now 13-for-25, a cool 52%. The rest of the team? They're just 17-for-66, which comes to 25.75% on the year.
The Tigers as a team are shooting 32.6%, which is up a little bit from last year's dreadful performance. But it's pretty much all Mark Smith. Everybody else has actually shot the ball worse collectively than they did a year ago.
Missouri did manage to scorch the nets in the second half, though. The Tigers shot 57.1% (16-for-28) after the break.
"We were stagnant the first half, really wasn't moving the ball," Martin said. "We got caught up trying to get the ball in to Tilly so now guys are standing around and that's not good. That one's on me. Guys settled in in the second half, just playing basketball."
*If this one surprised us, it didn't surprise Cuonzo Martin. Liberty may not have the name of some of Mizzou's other opponents, but the Flames have already beaten two SEC teams and Martin knew his team would have a battle on its hands. He compared the game to math test.
"I knew I had to pass that class, but boy, it was a tough one," Martin said.
"The truth of the matter and I say this with all due respect, we felt like this would be the one of these first four. Not necessarily talent because everybody's talented, but how they play, you got five guys that can make shots on the perimeter, execute the offense, back cuts…that’s a lot of stuff when you have two or three days turnaround to prepare for. Just in how they play, we felt that this would be the one, even though this was at home that it would be a tough one."
The Tigers had won their first three games by double digits, but didn't get up by ten or more in this one until less than four minutes remained. The biggest lead Mizzou had in the first 31 minutes was four points. In fact, the Tigers had to battle back from down double figures, trailing 26-15 midway through the first half.
"They’re a great team," Tilmon said. "They’re gonna win a lot of games in their conference. For us to get the win, we started off slow and we kind of struggled and we weren’t playing our best game and we were only down four (at halftime)."
"They’re a good team, but you really gotta stay locked in in a stance," Mark Smith said. "They run so many actions throughout one possession that you just have to stay ready. We did."
*Pinson giveth and Pinson taketh away. When Xavier Pinson is on, he can be breathtaking. When he isn't, he can be maddening. And it often happens in the same game. Pinson scored 12 points, grabbed seven rebounds, handed out three assists and two steals. A nice line. Well, except for his six turnovers, two of which came on offensive fouls.
"Let the game come to you, let it flow," Martin said. "He's a talented player, he's a quick player, but he's got to let it flow. I think part of that, everybody got a little stagnant, just kind of waiting and standing. Just let it come to him because he's so fast, he can get to the rim on anybody.
*Missouri has built up some cushion heading into its toughest test so far. The Tigers are 4-0 with wins over at least two likely NCAA Tournament teams (Oregon and Liberty). They have a neutral court win and a road win. And Saturday, they'll get a chance to get a top ten win. Illinois, ranked 9th in the polls, is coming off a 15-point win at Duke on Tuesday night as the Braggin' Rights game hits Mizzou's campus. The Tigers are looking for their third straight win in the series, but because of the way they've started the season, it's not necessarily a must-win for Mizzou. It should help the Tigers' postseason resume, regardless of the result.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: The turnovers, particularly from Pinson, are probably the biggest concern. Missouri committed only four after halftime, which is a big reason they managed to outscore the Flames by 13 points in the final 20 minutes. But the Tigers still had 14 for the game, which is entering dangerous territory against a team as talented as Illinois and some of those the Tigers will face in conference play.
STAR OF THE GAME: Mark Smith was the leading scorer and Tilmon was the one who led the late charge, but Dru Smith was Missouri's most consistent player on Wednesday. In a game that is typical of Smith, he put up 14 points, had two rebounds, two blocked shots, a steal and just one turnover. He led Mizzou only in blocked shots, but stuffed the stat sheet in a number of categories.
WHAT IT MEANS: The Tigers hadn't faced much second half adversity this season after running out to early double-figure leads in their first three games. They did so on Wednesday night and showed the toughness and resolve you'd expect out of a team stacked with veterans.
QUOTABLE: “Mitchell Smith, to me, is like the credit card: You can't leave home without it. And I say that with all sincerity. He's that type of guy. He and Drew Buggs, it's not necessarily what you see in the stat sheet. You can tell when they're on the floor how they're playing the game. Mitchell Smith is one of those guys, you've got to have him.” -- Cuonzo Martin
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