Things were starting to get nervy for Missouri basketball. Unlike the previous mid-major teams to come through Mizzou Arena, Wofford was not going away, having tied the game at 45 with 13 minutes left.
After a red-hot end to regulation against Xavier, Missouri point guard Xavier Pinson put on a repeat performance, taking control of the game with a key 13-0 run to give Missouri a double-digit lead it would maintain all the way to a 75-56 victory.
Looking like he had the ankle breaker badge from NBA 2K equipped, Pinson sized up his defender, hit him with a nasty crossover, stepped back and buried a contested fadeaway jumper from the elbow. The lead was now two.
On the next possession he ran a pick and roll with Jeremiah Tilmon and evaded pressure long enough to find Mark Smith for a 3-pointer. The lead was up to five.
The next play, Pinson, who had 10 points and two assists, jumped the passing lane for his second steal of the night, finishing with a cool one-handed dunk to push the lead to seven.
After drawing a foul on the next possession and converting from the stripe, Pinson had given Missouri a nine-point lead.
Torrence Watson said Sunday that Missouri believes it can be the best defensive team in the country. That’s a lofty goal, but after an utterly dominant second half, it’s not out of the question.
While Pinson sparkled on the offense, Missouri clamped down on defense: Wofford was held scoreless for a nearseven-minute stretch during Pinson’s run. The Tigers forced four turnovers and pushed the lead to 58-45 before Wofford finally sunk two free throws. Even more remarkable, Missouri held Wofford without a field goal for the last 14:35 of the second half, forcing the Terriers to miss their final 15 shots.
“I think we have a team that is built to defend like that,” Martin said. “I think the biggest key is simply taking pride in what it means to be an elite defensive team because that’s our goal.”
The Tigers, who entered the game ranked ninth in defensive efficiency, were rock-solid in the half court and forced three shot clock violations in the first period alone. But seemingly every time the Tigers would threaten to expand their lead, the duo of Nathan Hoover and Storm Murphy would hit a tough fall-away shot to keep the Terriers close. Hoover got his points, scoring 21, but Missouri held him to 35% shooting.
The defense closed out the game for Missouri in the second half, with the Tigers limiting a great shooting team in Wofford to just 36% shooting from the field, 27% from 3-point range.
“Let them try to beat you at the rim,” coach Cuonzo Martin said of the defensive game plan. “They got a couple in the first half but we played the percentages and we just talk about ‘get into the legs, get into the legs, get into the legs’ and make those guys drive, and it becomes a oneonone game. We like our chances if it becomes one on one defense. With the amount of hours we spend defending one on one we take our chances.”
Pinson was far from the only Tiger with a great offensive performance. Mark Smith shook off his early-season shooting woes, scoring 19 points on 50% shooting. Dru Smith also added eight points and seven assists, but it was Missouri’s big man who set the tone for the game.
Matchups like Wofford are made for Tilmon. The East St. Louis native seemed to agree, scoring 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
Starting four players under 6-foot-6, Wofford was always going to struggle with the 6-9 center, but Tilmon got off to an especially good start. The junior accounted for seven of the Tigers’ first 10 points, including his first-career 3-pointer.
“I hear it so much from y’all, my teammates, they’re always making fun of me, they say I’ve got opportunities in a game, but I’ll pump fake and pass it and stuff like that,” Tilmon said. “But today, I don’t know I was like, ‘I’m shooting this.’ I didn’t think about it.”
His underrated ability to find shooters while double teamed helped space the floor, contributing to the Tigers shooting 50% from 3 in the first half.
And when Wofford elected not to send a double his way, Tilmon made it pay — something he says coaches have had him working on all week.
On one particularly impressive play, Tilmon caught the ball on the right block, spun baseline and finished a double-clutch reverse layup through the foul to tie the game at 21. In the second half, he burned his man with that same post spin, this time finishing with a two-handed slam.
“I think tonight was the first time all season we really settled in offensively,” Martin said. “That allowed us to go inside outside. Any time you can go inside to Jeremiah he can get production, get guys to double, make decisions.”
Despite Tilmon’s offensive dominance early, Wofford actually won the battle on the boards 31-23, outrebounding Missouri 10-5 on the offensive glass.
Martin experimented with a smaller lineup featuring redshirt freshman Parker Braun at center near the end of the first half and stuck with it for stretches after that. In a small sample the lineup was effective: Missouri outscored Wofford by six over 10 minutes and Dru Smith dished two assists to Braun on back-to-back possessions.
While Tilmon says Braun has “the most bounce on the team,” Martin has experimented with Reed Nikko, Mitchell Smith and now Braun at backup center, leaving everyone guessing who will claim the majority of those minutes as the season progresses.
He’s an intelligent player,” Martin said of Braun. “I think if he was probably 10 pounds heavier then he’d be at a whole other level, because he understands (the game). He’s an athlete, but he gets those two ball-screen dives because he’s quick and athletic.”