COLUMBIA, Mo. — There are going to be games for the Missouri basketball team when perimeter shots don’t fall and turnovers and fouls spike. Wednesday was one of those nights.
Playing their second game in 48 hours, the Tigers labored on the offensive end but again played enough defense to dispatch a mid-major foe from Mizzou Arena, beating Morehead State 70-52 in the second game of the Tigers’ home portion of Hall of Fame Classic. Mizzou heads to Kansas City for the premier games in the event, facing Butler on Monday at the Sprint Center then Oklahoma or Stanford on Tuesday.
A familiar rash of turnovers dogged the Tigers on Wednesday and kept Cuonzo Martin’s team from pulling away from the Eagles (4-1) early. That’s OK when Mark Smith is having a Mark Smith night.
The junior guard shook off two first-half fouls to lead Mizzou (4-1) with a season-best 21 points, one off his career high. After not scoring in MU’s first game against Incarnate Word, Smith has led the team in points in three of the last four games and has pushed his season average to 13.6 points per game.
• BOX SCORE: Mizzou 70, Morehead State 52
The sharpshooter from Edwardsville High did his usual damage from deep with three 3-pointers but also got to the rim on four drives in the paint. After the Tigers missed 13 manageable layups in last week’s overtime loss at Xavier, Martin challenged the team to drive the ball stronger inside, especially Smith, who missed four of those 13 shots.
“I was going to the basket kind of soft,” Smith said.
That changed Wednesday.
“Mark’s a physical guy. He’s a strong driver,” Martin said. “The biggest key is he drove it with power.”
A 45percent 3-point shooter last season before a foot injury required season-ending surgery, Smith continues to expand his game inside the arc.
“I think he knows guys are going to be closing out hard because of the reputation he built up last year,” point guard Dru Smith said. “He was killing it last year before he got hurt. So I think he’s taken advantage of the hard close-outs. He’s getting to the rim and he’s making plays.”
Mark Smith connected on two early 3s to open the game, but the Tigers missed the rest of their dozen 3s in the half and finished the night just 4 of 22 from behind the arc — and just 1 of 17 from shooters not named Mark.
Through five games, the Tigers are shooting just 26.7percent from 3-point range, down from 36.3percent last season. Outside of Mark Smith, the Tigers are making just 21.8percent of their 3s. After an 0-for-6 night Wednesday, sophomore guard Torrence Watson has made just 5 of 24 from deep. Shot selection was a problem Wednesday, Martin said.
“For the most part in the first half, they were easy 3s, meaning you settle for that shot as opposed to working,” Martin said. “I thought we shot too many off-the-dribble 3s. … You have to know who are you are and know your strengths and still read the defense and get downhill.”
“Now if they’re open 3s, you’ve got to let them fly,” Martin added. “I thought Torrence had six open ones. They just didn’t fall. For every other guy, I’m not sure.”
Martin figures the NCAA’s extended 3-point arc has factored into some of the early struggles. For this season, the line moved to the international distance, from 20 feet, 9 inches to 22 feet, 1¾ inches.
“The extended line should have you shooting open 3s,” Martin said, “especially when you have a guy like Jeremiah (Tilmon) in the post. You shouldn’t really be shooting tough 3s unless it’s late in the game or late in the clock.”
Turnovers became a problem, too, Wednesday. The Tigers finished with 17 giveaways and at one stretch in the second half, the Tigers gave the ball back with three offensive fouls in a span of four possessions. With the Eagles doubling him with every touch, Tilmon had more turnovers (five) than field goals (two) or rebounds (four).
Dru Smith, playing in foul trouble most of the night, still managed to stuff the box score with 11 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Nobody else finished in double-figure scoring for the Tigers.
Missouri cruised to a 16-6 early lead, but Morehead rattled off a 14-3 run as turnovers plagued the Tigers. During one stretch, the lead changed sides on six consecutive scores, most of those with Mark Smith and Tilmon on the bench with two fouls.
Morehead went ahead 29-27 with a couple free throws in the final two minutes of the half, but the Tigers stormed back with a 9-0 surge to close the half. Freshman forward Kobe Brown ignited two transition chances with steals and finished with layups on the other end. Backup center Reed Nikko added a three-point play in the post.
Luckily for the rest of the Tigers, defense and rebounding never faltered. Morehead shot just 38 percent against Mizzou’s swarming man-to-man defense, and the Tigers won the rebounding battle 45-28 with 17 second-chance points.
“We take pride in our defense,” guard Javon Pickett said. “When our shots aren’t falling right now, I’m not really too concerned. Guys put in a lot of work to knock down those shots. Those shots are going to fall.”
FRESHMEN BACK IN ACTION
After barely dipping into his bench Monday against Wofford, Martin played 12 of his 13 scholarship players on Wednesday, including the two freshmen who didn’t see the floor two days earlier: Mario McKinney and Tray Jackson. As usual with Martin, playing time comes down to reliability on defense, and against a prolific offensive team with precise set plays like Wofford, he wanted the two rookies on the bench.
On Wednesday, Jackson provided an instant spark on the offensive end with seven quick points, a career-high. McKinney finished with two points and two rebounds in nine minutes.
“Tray did a good job offensively trying to score the ball,” Martin said. “He still has to improve assignments defensively and all that because athletically he’s strong. He has to showcase that defensively. I think he plays defense cautiously. ‘I don't want to make mistakes.’ But he just has to play, because he’s one of our better athletes. I think Mario is a good on-ball defender. Now he has to learn the other parts, being away from the ball. He'll get that. But he's fast with the ball. He can he can attack the rim. He can make plays.
“But my goal is just to play the guys that I think give us the best chance to win games, the guys that play hard, that understand what we’re trying to do. I just felt like in the Wofford game you have to be sound with who you have on the floor because they can pick you apart and break down and all of a sudden you’re in scramble situations the whole night.”
Pickett played a team-high 33 minutes, gave the Tigers nine points, five rebounds and three assists while attacking on both ends of the floor at his usual frenetic pace. On a night when shots weren’t falling and the Tigers gave the ball away at will for stretches, Pickett played under control, never attempting a shot from 3-point range while handling the ball cleanly with just one turnover.
He was especially valuable keeping possessions alive when Mark Smith was on the bench with early fouls.
“I thought he was sound,” Martin said. “He's a guy I call a construction worker and I mean that in the best terms because he works. He does all those things just sound. He never stops. He works. He competes. We need more guys like him.”
COLD START FOR WATSON
Watson is officially in a shooting slump. After making 2 of 6 3s on Monday he misfired on all six attempts from deep Wednesday, including an airball from the corner. Teammates aren’t worried.
“I just tell him to keep being confident,” Mark Smith said. “Torrence shoots with me a lot in the morning. He really makes a lot of shots. I tell him to keep shooting. Sometimes it just takes one to go in to spark. … I see the work he puts in. They’re going to fall. Me, personally, I’m not worried. He puts in the work. It’s only a matter of time before he starts knocking them down.”
“He's going to be fine,” Pickett said. “Torrence is a great shooter. He may not be shooting how he wants to, but that’s going to come for Torrence. We all believe in him. We have the utmost confidence in him. Next game, he’ll prepare himself and knock down his shots.”
Watson went through a similar stretch early last year, making just 5 of his first 19 3-pointers before his first double-digit scoring game against UT-Arlington on Dec. 4. He finished the year hotter than anyone on the team, making at least three 3s in six of MU’s final seven games. In that stretch he made 24 of 54 shots from behind the arc, a 44.4-percent clip.
Point guard Xavier Pinson went down hard under the basket late in the second half but was able to walk back to the bench on his own. Martin wasn't sure of the severity of any injury but didn't seem concerned he was hurt badly. ... In his most extensive action of his young career, redshirt freshman forward Parker Braun played 11 minutes and pulled down four rebounds with two blocks. ... The Tigers improved to 19-0 under Martin when holding teams to fewer than 60 points. ... Dru Smith's five-assist game was his third of the season. He became MU's first player with 11 points, nine rebounds and five assists since Earnest Ross against Vanderbilt on Jan. 6, 2014.