Mitchell Smith hardly had a reaction.
He’d used all his energy either attempting to man the backside or showing disdain toward the officials, who’d just given him his fifth foul.
Not long after, senior Jeremiah Tilmon fouled out in an unreal sequence that practically cemented the game. Missouri was lost without the core of its frontcourt. Through whistle after whistle, the Tigers lost whatever rhythm and depth they once had Friday night, and ultimately fell in a 70-64 loss to No. 2-seeded Arkansas in the third round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
It was very different in the first half. Everything was going right for Missouri. The Tigers exploded into a 10-point lead, seemingly eyeing a win. MU was smooth sailing. But when Mitchell Smith picked up his third personal, the ship capsized.
Arkansas went on a 16-2 run, drilled a flurry of deep 3s and saw some remarkable contributions from its bench. Senior guard Dru Smith, MU’s illustrious defender, was stuck on projected NBA lottery pick Moses Moody. He held Moody to five points on 2-of-6 shooting — the best job anyone has done on him this season. But the Tigers’ 6-foot-3 guard couldn't be everywhere at once.
JD Notae had an enormous game, knocking down some shots that likely had Arkansas coach Eric Musselman biting his nails to the bone as they went in the air. Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin’s nails were long enough to scratch his shiny head; The Razorbacks had turned the Tigers’ once double-digit advantage into a six-point lead of their own.
Tilmon emerged as a big factor late in the half with some unusual one-on-one opportunities. He abused them, ultimately forcing Connor Vanover off the floor for a good chunk of the remainder of the game.
Despite MU keeping things close — even stealing another lead — things never got easier, and the whistle had hardly gotten its shine at Bridgestone Arena.
Both teams saw nine combined turnovers through a four-minute stretch near the start of the second half. Missouri and Arkansas both ended up with at least 20 turnovers. The game had been sloppy, and the ensuing whistles made it that much more gritty.
Tilmon’s eyes beamed as he saw opportunity down low with Arkansas opting to go small in the second half.
“It might get annoying throwing the ball in to (Tilmon),” Pinson said. “But like, seriously, I feel like whenever any team goes small and (Tilmon) is in the game, I feel like we just have to, 100%, have to get him the ball no matter what. And then we gotta play through him.”
The Tigers continued to feed him, and the big man remained aggressive. Perhaps too aggressive. Tilmon collected two punishing fouls in a 15-second sequence. He forced Martin’s hand, who brought back the foul-ridden Mitchell Smith. The substitution seemed sustainable.
But that feeling lasted just a few moments. Mitchell Smith picked up his fourth personal 21 seconds later, and in an aggressive game, both bigs took turns fouling out shortly thereafter. Martin was without his two best big men with the final 5:26 to play. Missouri was running out of options.
“Same for any team, you have key guys that you count on,” Martin said. “Especially in (Tilmon’s) case. A guy that you feel like gives you low-post production offensively. Mitch does a lot of different things. Defending, rebounding, making the 3-point shot. … You’re talking about two guys that we’re counting on.”
Arkansas forward Justin Smith had been pivotal to that point, taking advantage of Tilmon and Mitchell Smith’s precautious play. Things only got easier when his biggest threat became sophomore Parker Braun. His 13-point, eight-rebound half was monumental.
Both teams continued to see offensive fouls, with Missouri seemingly looking more defeated as calls piled on. There were 15 offensive fouls by the final buzzer, with the Tigers taking on 10 of them. They’d somehow been too aggressive, and got the short end of the stick with the officials.
“I’ve never seen that many (offensive fouls) in a game,” Martin said. “So I guess they were charge calls. You’re driving the ball, you’re being aggressive.”
While Arkansas still remained aggressive after calls, Missouri shriveled up. The Razorbacks built a 10-point lead, and despite their idea of a comeback effort, the Tigers never recovered.
“There was a bit of a momentum shift there in the second half,” Dru Smith said. “I think we just have to do a better job of making adjustments to how the game is being called. We saw that they were calling a lot of charges. And so just understanding that we have to be able to make that adjustment and still continue to play our brand of basketball.”
After falling short in the third round of the SEC Tournament, the Tigers now await Selection Sunday. A mid-level tournament seeding is likely waiting for them, and they’ll have to change directions if they want to make a stronger run in Indiana. But for now, junior guard Xavier Pinson’s mood likely will set the tone for the team while they look ahead.
“I’m pissed off at this loss,” Pinson said. “...Honestly these guys have worked so hard. We all have worked so hard. So I feel like we just gotta shake this one off and look at what’s bigger. And that’s the national tournament.”