On a rough shooting night for Missouri men’s basketball, Mark Smith had the magic touch.
Smith was exactly what the Tigers needed Wednesday night against Morehead State as they struggled shooting from beyond the arc and with ball security in the first half. And when he wasn’t in the game due to foul trouble, it showed.
Smith’s season-high 21 points on 7-for-9 shooting from the field (3-for-5 from 3-point range) were enough to overcome his teammates’ struggles, as the junior led the Missouri to a 70-52 victory against the Eagles in Mizzou Arena.
Smith was Missouri’s most commanding offensive presence, knocking down open jumpers just as well as he finished aggressive dribble drives at the rim with confidence. Coach Cuonzo Martin especially liked what he saw.
“Mark’s a strong guy, a strong driver. The biggest key is that he drove it with power,” Martin said. “In the Xavier game ... we counted 13 (missed layups) that we felt like we could’ve made. But as how he drove (against Xavier), he didn’t go with power, how we teach him in practice. I thought he did that today.”
Smith was the Tigers’ first-half catalyst as they rocketed to a 13-4 start, but two fouls sent him to the bench with 13:28 left in the period. While he was out, Missouri entered a rut. It was even losing 29-27 before a 9-0 run to end the first half. But after the intermission ended and he returned to the floor, Missouri’s offensive efficiency returned, too.
Smith agreed with Martin’s assessment that he could have driven the ball with more authority and aggression in the Xavier game, and that tonight was the culmination of the adjustments made since then to his game.
“I just think like in the second half, you know, we all have one mindset, and that’s to come out with a W,” Smith said of the Tigers’ second-half surge. “I was just trying to play under control. (After) watching the Xavier film ... I was just trying to go strong, not fade away or just go straight up to the rim. So that’s what I tried to do tonight.”
Smith was an offensive facilitator when most of his teammates were anything but. Outside of him, the Tigers shot a combined 16-for-48 from the field, including a 1-for-17 rate from deep that featured a stretch of 13-straight treys missed. 17 turnovers from the Tigers also didn’t help things.
Good for Missouri, then, that the defense still stayed solid. The nation’s 15th-best team in points allowed per game entering Wednesday at 54.2 points per game, the Tigers nearly hit their average exactly.
Morehead entered the game 26th-nationally in rebounds per game — perhaps a bit inflated with the Eagles’ 351st-ranked strength of schedule according to College Basketball Reference — but the Tigers completely neutralized that threat.
Missouri outrebounded Morehead 45-28, including a 15-6 advantage on the offensive glass. After getting outrebounded against Wofford on Monday, Martin wrote on the pregame whiteboard that he wanted his team to dominate the glass, and he got his wish.
However, those boards weren’t just hauled in by rebounding leader Jeremiah Tilmon, Jr., who had an off night with five points and four rebounds on just 2-for-7 shooting. It was the Smiths — Mark and Dru — that led the Tigers in rebounding Wednesday.
Dru’s nine rebounds and Mark’s eight were first and second on the team respectively, as they crashed the glass well. But Dru Smith believed that it was less due to anything special he did and more due to his big men boxing out and leaving him with easy boards.
“That was something that we were focusing on, that we were definitely going to make sure that wasn’t going to happen (again),” Dru Smith said of losing Monday’s rebounding battle. “I think (the guards) need to be a lot better at it; I know I do especially. (The forwards) go a great job of boxing out and everything, and the ball just kind of ends up coming to us.”
The Tigers now have a needed break after two games in three days, but only for an upcoming stretch of two games in two days against tougher opponents than Wofford and Morehead State.Butler awaits the Tigers Monday, then either Stanford or Oklahoma on Tuesday in the championship rounds of the Hall of Fame Classic at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Tipoff with the Bulldogs will be at 6 p.m. and broadcast on ESPNU.