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MU takes on Central Arkansas in the home opener

MU's Kevin Puryear fights with Central Arkansas Khaleem Bennett for the ball during the first half of the game between the Missouri Tigers and the Central Arkansas Bears on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, at the Mizzou Arena in Columbia. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

COLUMBIA, MO. • Mark Smith knows how to make a first impression.

In his debut for Missouri, after transferring from Illinois in the offseason, the sophomore guard scorched the Mizzou Arena nets Tuesday with five 3-pointers — in the season’s first 22 minutes.

Smith finished Tuesday’s season-opening 68-55 victory over Central Arkansas with 19 points and, maybe more of a surprise, a career-high 10 rebounds.

Smith, a former Mr. Illinois Basketball from Edwardsville, just became eligible to play 11 days earlier when the NCAA granted his waiver request. A starter for the first two months of his freshman year at Illinois, Smith came two points shy of his career high in 26 minutes of action.

“Man, he’s an awful good player,” Central Arkansas coach Russ Pennell said. “He’s so efficient. He’s not overly athletic, but he’s solid and his stroke is pure. He shoots the ball as well as anyone I’ve seen in a long time. He can really have a nice year for Mizzou.”

That’s the hope for the Tigers , who need consistent scorers to surface in the wake of Jontay Porter’s season-ending knee injury. While Smith did his damage on only nine shots — he was five of eight from 3-point range — Missouri’s more seasoned players struggled to catch fire. Seniors Kevin Puryear and Jordan Geist shot a combined three of 17 and missed all nine of their 3-point attempts.

On the bright side, the Tigers were rarely in danger against the Bears, from the Southland Conference. Mizzou led by double digits for all but 1:24 of the second half.

On the brighter side, Missouri center Jeremiah Tilmon avoided foul trouble until midway through the second half and finished with 16 points in 26 minutes. Coach Cuonzo Martin’s only complaint with Tilmon was his teammates didn’t feed him enough.

“Obviously when you get him the ball he can make things happen because he’s so physical, so strong,” Martin said. “He’s progressing his game.”

Martin’s Tigers face a stiffer test Friday night at Iowa State. The Cyclones opened Tuesday with a 79-53 win over Alabama State.

With an overmatched opponent to open the schedule Tuesday, the most intrigue came before tip-off, when Martin’s first starting lineup of the season was revealed. Three of Martin’s starters had something in common: They once signed national letters of intent to play for Illinois.

Tilmon and Pickett bailed on their commitments after coaching changes at Illinois and Missouri, while Smith spent his freshman season in the Illini backcourt. Puryear and Geist were the other two starters.

Smith had the hottest start for the Tigers, sinking his first thee 3-pointers in the game’s opening five minutes. The Tigers climbed to a 13-point lead before going into an offensive funk, missing eight consecutive shots during one stretch. Central Arkansas was even worse, misfiring on 10 straight shots early in the half.

Once the Bears got within four points on two straight 3s, Martin called a quick timeout with 4:48 left. Out of the break the Tigers promptly went inside to Tilmon for a jump-hook.

Tilmon opened the second half with another basket inside, followed by two more Smith 3s. Smith shot just 23.2 percent from 3-point range last year at Illinois, but after moving to Columbia this summer, he committed himself to mastering his shot from deep.

“I’ve always been a good shooter,” Smith said. “At Illinois, I don’t know how to explain it. I just couldn’t make shots. I just worked my tail off this summer.”

At Illinois, he never pulled down more than three rebounds in a game, but he consistently crashed the defensive boards Tuesday, doubling Tilmon’s output on the glass.

“I thought I was going to get 10 rebounds, but he ended up getting them,” Tilmon said. “But he’s my guy. There ain’t no jealousy.”

Martin was pleased.

“I’ve always told our guards, ‘I don’t know where you get the idea the big guys are supposed to do all the rebounding,’” Martin said. “Everybody has the right to rebound the basketball. ... Mark’s not afraid to get his nose dirty.”

After leading the SEC in fouls last year, Tilmon played 18 minutes before he heard his first whistle, giving the Tigers a physical presence inside without bullying through the lane — for a while. By the six-minute mark of the second half, with Central Arkansas still hanging around, Tilmon was on the bench with his fourth foul.

In the game’s final minutes, Smith passed on perimeter shots in favor of drives to the basket. He earned two foul shots on a baseline drive, then kissed a runner off the backboard for his final points.

“It’s one of those deals with him, shoot the ball when you’re open but don’t neglect your ability to drive to the basket,” Martin said. “Because he’s strong around the rim. He can make plays.”

The Tigers hope a lot more follow.

Dave Matter is the Mizzou beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.