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Tigers survive feisty Morehead State to finish non-conference play

Tigers survive feisty Morehead State to finish non-conference play

December 30th, 2018 by Colin O'Brien in Mizzou Sports

Morehead State's James Baker looks to shoot as Missouri's Jordan Geist defends during Saturday afternoon's game at Mizzou Arena.

Photo by Associated Press /News Tribune.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — It wasn't pretty, and it was nearly a huge letdown, but Missouri did enough in the second half Saturday afternoon to hold on for a 75-61 win against Morehead State at Mizzou Arena.

Leading by 28 in the first half and by 23 at intermission after scoring a season-high 45 first-half points, Missouri played uninspired basketball before acknowledging the Eagles had cut the deficit to 10 with nine minutes remaining. Morehead State got there with a 16-3 run that woke up Missouri.

"I think we got complacent," Missouri guard Jordan Geist said. "We were up big, we played a decent, pretty good first half, and we just came out slow. We didn't have any energy, people were trying to get their own. And in these types of games, you kind of lull yourself to sleep, so you've got to make sure you bring the energy and come out strong."

Mark Smith led the Tigers with a career-high 22 points, 16 in the first half, and Geist added 20, 15 of which came in the second half. Kevin Puryear's 12 rounded out the team's double-digit scorers.

Jeremiah Tilmon had two rebounds, four turnovers and scored two points on four shots, fouling out in 12 minutes in an underwhelming return to action a week after a double-double in the Braggin' Rights game against Illinois in St. Louis.

Missouri went away from post-ups almost entirely with Tilmon on the bench. Though the trade-off was getting K.J. Santos 20 minutes of much-needed playing time, he does not offer the same offensive creativity and skill of Tilmon.

With Tilmon out of the game and Santos attempting just two shots in those 20 minutes, the Tigers' 3-point looks weren't as open, or weren't open at all, but the offense did not immediately course-correct with dribble drives or slashes into the paint.

"Obviously we want consistency (from Tilmon), but you win games different ways," Geist said. "You're not going to win every game the same way. So one game, it might be Mark (Smith), it might be Kevin, it might be Tilly, you don't really know."

The message to start driving and cutting was clearly heard by Missouri's offense with seven minutes to play. Leading 60-51, the Tigers took just three 3s the rest of the game, and scored their final 15 points on layups or at the free-throw line.

Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin was pleased with Santos' minutes, especially his defense, but the next step is getting his confidence on offense to match.

"That's the biggest thing, try to get him a lot of minutes, get his legs up under him, run the floor," Martin said. "Defensively we feel like he's there, now offensively he has to be more assertive, looking for his offense. It'll get there.

"I feel good about it. K.J., continuing this pace, he'll earn some minutes just because he's a guy that can really play the 3, 4 or 5."

Despite the large lead and brush with collapse, the end result wasn't too different from the other wins in this streak for Missouri. The defense held its opponent right around 60 points and the offense, powered by ball movement and screens to open up 3-point shots, made 13-of-31 from beyond the arc, though Geist and Smith did most of that damage, combining to go 8-of-17 from range.

"Yes, I mean because you won it," Martin said when asked if he'd have taken the end result of the game before the tip. "Especially with Jeremiah in foul trouble. You've got to find different ways to win games. I've been a part of games where you have a lead like that and let it slip and it goes the other way, so you like to walk away with a win so you can talk about it.

"There's also great stuff to teach when you have nine days until your next game, but again, wanting to grow from it, and you can't take anything for granted. You've got to finish basketball games."

Missouri took a 35-7 lead with 7:35 left in the first half, and in the 17-minute stretch across halftime between that point and Morehead State cutting the lead to 10 with 9:39 to play, the Eagles outscored the Tigers 39-21.

"It's tough, but that's a part of being a good team and growing with these young guys," Geist said of keeping the same energy that helped Missouri build a 28-point advantage. "You've got to teach them this, so eventually, when you get to that 20-, 30-point lead you can push it to 40 and keep it like that."

The Tigers finish non-conference play 9-3 on a six-game win streak and await No. 3 Tennessee on Jan. 8 at home to start Southeastern Conference play.