Cuonzo Martin grimaced while recalling the play.
His Missouri team had just won 89-85 over Mississippi State in overtime Saturday, but this moment still made Martin look queasy. He shut his eyes and pursed his lips.
Jontay Porter, inbounding the ball against a full-court press, heaved the basketball to his right, near halfcourt — where no Tigers were. The ball went out of bounds, one of three Missouri turnovers in the final 90 seconds of regulation. Those giveaways aided a 12-point Mississippi State comeback that took fewer than 2 minutes to force overtime.
Though they ultimately rebounded, the Tigers cracked under Mississippi State’s full-court press and made this game closer than it needed to be.
“It was just a fly-by deal,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said of his decision to implement a press. “We did a really good job of it and really got them on their heels, really got us aggressive.”
Porter turned the ball over twice inbounding against the press. But the freshman forward shares a smaller portion of the culpability than his teammates do.
The first turnover against the Mississippi State press came 1 minute 27 seconds remaining, after Nick Weatherspoon had just tipped the ball in to make it a 10-point game.
When Porter prepared to inbound the ball, the person he wanted to give it to most — Robertson, the team’s go-to scorer and a good free-throw shooter — was about a foot away from the baseline with a man behind him. Porter’s other two immediate options, guards Jordan Geist and Cullen VanLeer, were near the free-throw line.
None of them had much room to shake free of their defenders and be in position to catch the ball, Geist said. So Porter tried to force a pass to Robertson’s right, but the ball rolled out of bounds, which set up a Lamar Peters layup that made it an eight-point game.
“We started too low,” Geist said. “We didn’t get open for the inbounder.”
The same problem manifested itself with about 40 seconds remaining, after another and-one layup by Peters made it a five-point game. This time, Robertson, Geist and Jordan Barnett were in the backcourt — and all three ran toward the baseline. Porter threw the ball toward half court and seemed to tell Robertson after the turnover that he wanted him to run upcourt rather than come toward the ball.
“One of those guys should have been at half court in his vision,” Martin said of the play. “The other guy should have been at the elbow. He probably pointed like go up the floor. Our guards didn’t do a good job when they put pressure on us.”
Two Bulldog free throws after that Porter turnover made it a three-point game, and on the following possession, Robertson tripped, losing control of the ball. Peters grabbed it and pulled up for the game-tying three-pointer seconds later.
“Oftentimes you get complacent with a lead like that,” Martin said. “They (Mississippi State) stayed aggressive. We struggled in areas with pressure like that.”
Porter, who finished with 10 points, turned the ball over once more in overtime — but this time it was on a charge. The Tigers were able to recompose themselves after their collapse, and they didn’t have to deal with a press in overtime because Mississippi State only mustered one point in the final 2 1/2 minutes. Kevin Puryear, who hit the game-winning three-pointer, called this a “growth moment.”
Count learning to make successful inbounds passes against a press as a growing pain then.
“Taking the ball out of bounds, you can draw up 60 different plays,” Martin said. “But I’ve always been a guy (who believes) come and get the ball. Get open, and that’s how I look at it. I can call 90 things, but you’ve got to be willing to get the ball.”