Mark Smith

Missouri guard Mark Smith attempts to drive against Florida on Saturday at Mizzou Arena. The Tigers romped to a 91-75 victory.

Xavier Pinson leaped to snatch the ball out of the air and began sprinting across half-court and towards the rim. The sophomore point guard faked a pass to Javon Pickett in the right corner, cocked the ball back, slammed a right-handed dunk over 6-foot-10 Florida forward Omar Payne and had a little something to say about it after, too.

Highlight plays like that have been largely missing from Mizzou Arena this season. But the high-flying, high-scoring Tigers — the version of the Tigers who played Saturday night, anyway — got out running early on the way to a season-high 51 first-half points, comfortably winning their first SEC game of the decade 91-75 over Florida in the highest-scoring game of the Cuonzo Martin era.

Beating the Gators in what Martin called "the best effort of the season" is a huge deal for the Tigers, who began SEC play 0-2 with losses to Tennessee and Kentucky. The win is Missouri’s third Quad 1 win of the season and the highest-ranked opponent it has defeated. 

Florida did not simply roll over, either. The Gators started the second half 4-4 from 3-point range and got to the line early and often, making 25 of their 32 free throws to stay in the game. But Missouri’s defense clamped down, and every time it looked like the Gators might get back in it, Missouri nailed another 3 to maintain its double-digit lead. 

Dru Smith stepped up in the absence of center Jeremiah Tilmon, still out with a stress fracture in his foot. The junior guard assumed the mantle of the Tigers’ best player, leading the team with 22 points and six assists. In what was by far his best performance in the black and gold, he stole the ball five times, finishing one off with an impressive eurostep finish.

"The biggest thing with Dru is, if he obviously isn't in foul trouble, he brings a lot to the table," Martin said. "What he did tonight, he was ready to shoot the 3-ball, because he can shoot it. That sets up his whole game after that. If his 3-ball is falling, then he can do a lot of things for us."

“I thought Dru Smith was fantastic," Florida coach Mike White said. "One of the better performances of anyone we’ve played against this year. He played like an all-league guard.”

Against Tennessee, Missouri struggled late in the game to create offense in the half-court. Smith struggling with foul trouble was a big part of that, but when the junior guard plays like he did against Florida, it changes the calculus of what the Tigers can be on the offensive end.

Florida graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. kept the Gators in the game early, scoring a team-high 22 points. He was a major part in the Gators doubling up the Tigers on the offensive glass 15-7.

Outside of his poster slam, Pinson had eight points, three assists and two steals as the Tigers secondary ball-handler. Pinson said that after the Tennesee game, Martin got on him "real bad," and that inspired his performance against the Gators.

"To be honest, him getting on me was mainly my whole anger and hunger out there on the court," Pinson said. "That was all him. I couldn't thank him enough. He got on me and I was kind of embarrassed, but there was nothing you can do. I just have to take it in and learn from it. He's not gonna steer me in the wrong direction."

Martin’s teams have often been criticized for playing a grind-it-out, slow-paced, defense-first style of basketball. That’s been the case for most of this season, but Saturday night was an exception.

At Friday’s media availability, Martin emphasized getting out in transition, saying his team could score "five to 10 more points" if it got out and ran.

The Tigers forced 14 Florida turnovers on Saturday night, and instead of taking the ball out to set up a half-court set, Missouri pushed the pace, scoring 17 points off turnovers in a highly entertaining game that had Mizzou Arena much more lively than it was against the Vols earlier in the week.

"You can't defend at the level we defend at and get steals and turnovers and don't capitalize on them," Martin said. "We have to be aggressive. We have to be assertive."

When the Tigers had to attack in the half-court, they ran more pick and roll than usual, leading to a couple of easy baskets from center Reed Nikko, who played well in a starting role, scoring seven points and adding five boards.

Everything was clicking for the Tigers. They had more success attacking close-outs off the bounce, something Martin has encouraged all season. Even typical “three and D” wing Torrence Watson showed flashes off the bounce, finishing a nice and-one late in the second half through contact.

But more than anything else, the biggest difference for Missouri on Saturday was that it made its shots. The Tigers drilled 12 of their 19 3s, good for a season-high 63%.

"You go 12-19 from 3, you're going to have a good chance, especially with the way this program defends," White said.

Turns out when you make shots, everything else gets a lot easier. The Tigers were rolling Saturday; White said his staff was "helpless" trying to slow down the white-hot Tigers. This is what those who were high on Missouri thought its offense would look like all along, but a percentage of 30.5 from 3 heading into Saturday had created spacing issues.

"More than anything, shots went down," Martin said about Missouri's shooting from 3-point range, the highest since 2013. "If shots go down, you're a different team 'cause they'll do the other stuff. But for most guys, if the shot goes in, they feel good and they play differently. That's what this was tonight."

The Tigers next play at Mississippi State on Tuesday (8 p.m. on the SEC Network), when they will look to keep their hot shooting going after their best performance of the season.

Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.

  • Spring 2018 sports reporter. I am a sophomore studying business and sports journalism

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