NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Reading the same book can get old after some time.
Missouri’s age-old story this season has been its ability to blow sufficient leads. Its first night in Nashville at the Southeastern Conference Tournament was no different.
The seventh-seeded Tigers got off to a slow start, but ultimately built a double-digit lead near the end of the game. It wouldn’t be an MU game if that lead didn’t dissipate and put fans on the edge of their seats.
But Missouri chose to rewrite that story, showing in a 73-70 win over No. 10-seeded Georgia on Thursday why you maybe should believe in it, with a hint of pessimism, come NCAA Tournament time.
Missouri, which advanced to play second-seeded Arkansas at 6 p.m. Friday, began Thursday night shooting 5 of 7, but the Monstars from Space Jam seemingly stripped the Tigers of their powers for the remainder of the half.
Dru Smith and the rim weren’t getting along. The senior guard ended the first half shooting 2 of 9 from the field. Despite efforts defensively that backed his SEC All-Defense selection earlier this week, he had plenty of clean looks just rim out.
“I guess it was just me,” Smith said. “I don’t know, I just couldn’t make a shot in the first half. I was getting a little frustrated, but I just kept telling myself, ‘Just move on, next play, shots will start eventually falling.’”
Senior center Jeremiah Tilmon wasn’t much help either. For the second straight game, a team seemed to rigorously study the big man. The Bulldogs hounded the man in the middle, suffocating him on defense until he was hardly a factor.
The Tigers endured two periods of more than four minutes without a field goal. Offensive dry spells have plagued Missouri lately and makes it look every bit like a first-round out in the NCAA Tournament, but the last moments of the first half and the first 15 minutes of the second showed why it belongs there.
Junior guard Xavier Pinson stole the ball as the half’s final seconds dwindled. He dribbled his way to the other end and managed a moving 3 at the buzzer to end the half down one.
From there, the Tigers clawed their way back into a lead. Smith turned things around with a 12-point second half on 4-of-5 shooting, finishing with 16 points and eight rebounds and looking every bit like an All-SEC first-team selection.
Forward Kobe Brown proved to be huge, dazzling the crowd with 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions. His shots from deep matched the two Georgia made in an attempt to stay around, but Brown’s 3s sparked the run that had Missouri coasting to a 12-point lead.
The Tigers looked rejuvenated and like the team that was once No. 10 in the nation during that stretch. But all good things come to an end.
Georgia gave Missouri fits after switching to a zone. The Bulldogs were everywhere the Tigers turned, pressuring ballhandlers and trapping in a timely fashion. UGA went on a 17-6 run, and MU’s once double-digit lead vanished with just three minutes to play.
The Tigers have blown many leads — including a double-digit one to the Bulldogs less than a month ago — but chose the right time to demonstrate composure. Missouri never lost its lead through those final minutes. Through tough takes, free throws and solid defense, Missouri managed to cling on and push off when Georgia tried to take advantage of MU’s complacency.
“We are who we are at this point,” coach Cuonzo Martin said. “We’re gonna make a mistake here, turn it over, bad shot here, foul, whatever it is. Twenty-four games and that’s who we are. We just gotta find a way to win the game at this point. I’d love to give you six or seven different things, it was probably the same, man. You can look at my notes from two weeks ago, probably the same answer.”
The Tigers’ problem has been being who they are lately. The team who coasts and grows lackadaisical before losing head-scratchers. The team that you would bet against in March brackets.
But it’s the team that stood its ground in those final minutes Thursday that has gotten Missouri to where it is now. The team that has beaten three top-10 teams, remains collected and fights through pressure to close out games. The final stretch gives good reason to ride the Tigers’ coattails, and is the difference between a weekend’s stay in Indiana and a deep NCAA Tournament run.
“It does get a little tiring,” Smith said of the Tigers’ playing it so close. “But I mean, whatever we have to do to win games, that’s what we have to do. There’s gonna be runs, teams are gonna make runs, it’s gonna kinda go back-and-forth most of the time. Just understanding that we just have to have one more point at the end. At the end of the day, that’s what we did.”