COLUMBIA, Mo. — On a night his team set an NCAA record for consecutive made free throws, Missouri guard Dru Smith badly needed to do just the opposite Tuesday.
With the Tigers down three points to Texas A&M with 2.1 seconds left, Smith sank his first free throw then tried to miss his second to give his team a chance for a game-tying put-back.
Smith banked his shot off the backboard … and through the hoop.
“Yeah, I was trying to miss it and, of course, it went in,” Smith said after his team’s rally fell short in those final precious seconds. “That’s just kind of how it goes sometimes.”
Just like Saturday’s loss at Alabama, Missouri’s record-breaking day at the foul line was a mere footnote to another disappointing finish. On Tuesday, the Tigers erased a nine-point deficit in the final 100 seconds to get within a point but couldn’t complete the comeback in a 66-64 loss, the third straight for a team that’s running out of time to save itself from irrelevance.
After breaking team and conference marks at the foul line Saturday at Alabama with 31 consecutive made free throws, the Tigers continued their prowess at the stripe Tuesday with 23 more consecutive makes from the line. That broke the NCAA team record for consecutive made free throws of 50, set over two games by Wake Forest in 2005.
The NCAA record did little to console Cuonzo Martin’s team, now 9-9 and 1-5 in Southeastern Conference games.
“The pain is the loss, but the pleasure is you did something that will go down in history,” Martin said. “But all the guys will say they wanted to win the game more than anything.”
“I don't even think most of us probably know that we set a record or anything,” Smith said. “It’s just tough. We’re all focused on the game and whether we’re winning or not.”
The Tigers finished the game 25 of 26 from the foul line but made just 9 of 35 shots from 3-point range. Mark Smith led MU with 19 points, while Dru Smith added 18, plus eight rebounds, eight assists and five turnovers, one especially painful giveaway late. MU attempted only 15 shots from inside the 3-point arc, making just six.
Playing at home for the first time since their best win of the season, a 16-point victory over Florida on Jan. 11, the Tigers were down to a seven-man rotation most of the night. With center Jeremiah Tilmon still nursing a stress fracture in his left foot, the lineup was further depleted with freshman forward Kobe Brown sidelined by an illness. Freshman forward Tray Jackson never got off the bench either.
Brown, a 6-7 rookie who can play multiple positions and has been MU's best finisher off the dribble, was coming off his two highest scoring games of the season — 14 points at Mississippi State, 11 at Alabama — but the Tigers had to find other sources of offense to avoid their second three-game losing streak of the season.
Still, in a game the Aggies (9-8, 3-3) led for nearly 27 minutes, the Tigers kept things interesting late, even after pockets of fans in the crowd of 8,529 headed to the parking lots with the Aggies ahead by nine with 1:40 left. Mark Smith’s 3-pointer with 57 seconds left got the Tigers within two and restored hope.
On A&M’s next possession, Xavier Pinson swiped the ball from the Aggies, missed a layup but Mitchell Smith grabbed the rebound and drew a foul, the fifth on Aggies’ big man Josh Nebo, who led his team with 14 points.
Smith made the first but missed the second, ending MU’s two-game free throw streak at 54. The Tigers quickly fouled A&M’s Savion Flagg, but the junior guard missed both of his foul shots, setting up Mizzou for another possession after a timeout.
In his first head-to-head matchup against Martin, Aggies coach Buzz Williams always figured his team was in for a 40-minute fight, even with a late lead.
“Coach’s teams everywhere he's been take on his persona as much as any team in the country,” Williams said. “He is, in my opinion, as good of an example of a coach in any sport in college as there is. They're going to fight. Nothing's going to be easy. They're going to steal any ball that's passed inside the paint. And we knew it would be a struggle for us to break the shell of their gaps.
“I thought we fought a lot harder in the second in half, but as the second half was transpiring, it kind of felt like it was going to be a one- or two-possession game.”
With 19 seconds left and the Tigers down one, Dru Smith tried dribbling into the paint but was called for an offensive foul when his forearm sent Quenton Jackson sprawling to the floor.
“You never want to give the ref a chance to make a call,” Martin said, “and he gave the ref a tremendous chance to make a call either way.”
“I just can't turn the ball over right there,” Smith said. “That's on me.”
The Tigers nearly stole the ensuing inbounds pass, but Javon Pickett was whistled for his fifth foul just as he poked the ball loose from Jackson in front of the Aggies' bench. Instead, Jackson sank two free throws for a 65-62 lead.
Seemingly out of chances, Mizzou would get two more clean looks.
On MU’s next possession, Mark Smith got an open 3-pointer that would have tied the game but missed. Dru Smith grabbed the rebound and was fouled, leading to his fateful unintentional made free throw.
From there, the Aggies split two free throws for a two-point lead with 2.1 seconds left, leaving the Tigers one desperation attempt to win at the buzzer. Mizzou got a great look with Mark Smith’s length-of-the-court baseball pass to Parker Braun on the baseline, then a pass to Torrence Watson on the arc. His shot was on target.
“It looked like it hit the back of the rim,” said Mark Smith, a former standout pitcher who fired a 93-foot strike to Braun. “I thought we actually won the game.”
But, like so many hoisted earlier in the night, the shot missed, sending the Tigers to a familiar finish.
It doesn’t get any easier from here for Martin’s team. The Tigers get a breather from conference play Saturday but a huge challenge at No. 14 West Virginia in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, MU’s first appearance in the annual event since 2014-15 season. The Mountaineers (15-3) dismantled Texas 97-59 on Monday and have won four of their last five games — with a 9-0 record at home.
On Tuesday, against an Aggies defense that dared Mizzou to launch 3s, the Tigers obliged early, settling for perimeter shots instead of attacking inside. By the second media timeout, the Tigers were already down 16-8 after a 9-0 Aggies’ run — and had only taken one shot inside the 3-point arc. After a Mark Smith 3-pointer to open the game, MU missed its next nine shots, seven of them from deep. It wasn’t just the shooting that was off. MU turned the ball over five times through the game’s first eight minutes, at times struggling to get the ball across halfcourt against A&M’s zone press.
Martin wasn’t critical of his team’s shot selection, especially the Tigers’ barrage of open 3s in the corners.
“That 3-point shot looked wide open, so you’ve got to take that,” Martin said. “But I thought we did a better job late in the game attacking the rim because that was there. You have to finish at the rim because part of their game plan is sprinting you off the 3-point line. You have straight-line drives and opportunities at the rim. And I thought we were better in the last four minutes of the game, at least getting to the rim. But you have to finish we have to finish plays at the rim.”
More than 11 minutes into the game, Dru Smith’s reverse layup was Mizzou’s first 2-point field goal. Fortunately for the Tigers, they were playing the Aggies. One of the nation’s worst 3-point shooting teams, A&M went scoreless for eight minutes midway through the half, missing 10 straight shots.
Watson pushed Mizzou in front 18-16 with a 3-pointer, then followed with a couple free throws for a 12-0 Tigers’ run.
By halftime, Mizzou led 32-27 after a strong finish by Mark Smith, who sank his final three shots of the half, including a 3-pointer just ahead of the halftime buzzer. Nebo, the Aggies’ 6-9 forward and leading scorer, played just eight minutes in the half before picking up his second foul.
It was one of the more peculiar offensive halves for the Tigers this season. Mizzou attempted just eight shots from inside the arc and 14 from 3-point range. It was more of the same early in the second half as A&M used an 8-0 run to regain the lead. At the first media timeout the Tigers had attempted six shots: a Reed Nikko dunk and five missed 3-pointers.
The trend didn’t change. Nine minutes into the second half, the Tigers were 2 of 12 from 3-point range for the half, still with only the Nikko dunk as the team’s only shot from inside the arc.
During their three-game losing streak, the Tigers have connected on only 19 of 80 3-pointers, just 23.8 percent. Tuesday’s 35 3s matched the most MU has attempted in Martin’s three seasons as coach.
As much as he wants to see his team continue to attack inside and get to the foul line, Martin said he won’t tell his shooters to turn down open looks from the arc.
“As we continue to drive the ball, the 3-point shot will fall because as you get to the rim it loosens up most defenses,” Martin said.
“I don’t doubt they can make shots,” he added. “They just got to knock them down. They spend time on it. Eventually they’ll go down for us.”