Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin has spoken of games this season in which his team “played a boxing match that turned into a basketball game.”
The Tigers’ Tuesday matchup against Ole Miss was a heavyweight classic. The Rebels delivered blow after blow, and just as the Tigers hit the ropes, they delivered an uppercut. But by the final buzzer, the Rebels got the last swing. With Missouri’s guards worn down, Ole Miss ran away with a 60-53 win at Mizzou Arena to sweep the season series.
The first half was a dogfight. It was an unruly display of grit and hustle that saw Missouri shoot 33%. It was the Rebels’ game to lose, and they distanced themselves from the Tigers by the end of the half on hustle alone.
The Rebels corralled nine offensive rebounds through the first 20 minutes, and had nine more shots than the Tigers to show for it. Ole Miss forward Romello White gave MU fits when he caught the ball at the elbow. His 4-for-4 shooting led to eight of his team’s 16 first-half points in the paint. Missouri lost the handle when defending inside.
Ole Miss enjoyed a nine-point lead by halftime, but Missouri sought to give Ole Miss a better fight than it did nearly two weeks ago in Oxford. An 11-0 run from MU tied the game, and a short hook from senior Jeremiah Tilmon gave the Tigers their first lead with less than 10 minutes to play. But in familiar fashion, Missouri’s backcourt failed to deliver.
The Tigers’ starting guards struggled when navigating the zone. Ole Miss was aggressive as ever, and Missouri found itself just standing around at times.
“Tonight it was a little different,” senior Mark Smith said. “It looked like they were in man a little bit and sometimes they were in zone. I think sometimes we just got confused when the ball got in the middle. If we should drive it or keep moving, things like that. It just kind of got stagnant. It was a little surprising. We just kept holding the ball. Normally we don’t do that.”
Junior Xavier Pinson struggled the most when faced with hard hedges from help defenders and confusing defensive sets. The guard had two points on 1-of-9 shooting, the fourth game this season in which he shot 20% or less from the field. Pinson never found a rhythm, disrupting Missouri’s offensive flow from the tip.
Despite Pinson’s struggles, Martin opted not to insert another guard in his place as the clock dwindled.
“It was some thought,” Martin said when asked if he thought to play senior Drew Buggs in the final minutes. “(Pinson) is more of a scorer, with the mentality to score when it’s late like that. But it was certainly a thought, yes.”
Senior guard Dru Smith had one of his poorer shooting performances of the season, hitting 3 of 12 shots, including 2 of 8 from 3. Buggs went 1-for-5 from the field.
MU’s frontcourt did what it could to keep it in the game down the stretch.
Tilmon ended with 10 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and three steals. Junior Kobe Brown had 12 points, including eight pivotal second-half points when Martin decided to play through him. MU found its way back after a 15-2 run, leading a promising charge late. But Ole Miss never was quite out of it.
The Tigers went more than two minutes without a point during the final minutes of the game, and the Rebels took advantage to reclaim the lead and ice the win.
Ole Miss’ win marked a 2-0 sweep versus the Tigers this season. Missouri’s bad luck versus Mississippi teams this season continued, losing twice to Ole Miss and once to Mississippi State. The Rebels now lead the all-time series with Missouri 15-3.
After barely being voted to remain in the AP Top 25 on Monday, the Tigers’ resume continues to lose credibility.
“We’re just trying to finish the season off strong, honestly,” Tilmon said. “Every game counts. These last couple games all count to us and they all matter. Mentally, we’re just trying to move on to the next thing and not dwell on the past. But, of course it’s gonna affect us when we know we want to win those games and we’re expected to win those games. I mean, we just gotta keep moving forward.”