Turnovers have ailed Missouri all season. Even on a day when the Tigers only gave the ball away 11 times.
Mizzou has unraveled late in multiple games this season, either resulting in a loss or in a closer-than-necessary win. But Missouri’s undoing on Saturday, when the Tigers fell 77-75 to the Florida Gators, will sting in a different way than any other game has.
This time, Mizzou had the last possession of the game and a chance to win … until it didn’t.
Here were the Tigers, tied with 17 seconds left, coming out of a timeout near the end of what had been an impressive performance. Already dealing with the loss of Michael Porter Jr., Mizzou was proving it could withstand the absence of freshman point guard Blake Harris, who transferred from the team the day before.
The designed play was for guard Kassius Robertson to set a screen for Jontay Porter. Just as Missouri hoped, Porter dragged two defenders with him toward a corner, and Robertson was running toward the top of the key.
“It worked,” Robertson said. “It was going be wide open.”
Harris’ replacement in the starting lineup, Jordan Geist, must have thought so, too. He threw the ball toward Robertson for the last shot.
But Florida guard Chris Chiozza read where the pass was going, left the man he was defending and jumped in front of the ball. He scored on a fast-break layup just before time expired.
“It was a gamble,” Florida coach Mike White said. “And it paid off.”
This would have been Mizzou’s best win of the season. Florida (11-4, 3-0) was the preseason No. 8 team and was picked to finish second in a loaded Southeastern Conference.
MU’s Jeremiah Tilmon played just 8 minutes before fouling out. Without Harris, the Tigers (11-4, 1-1) had to rely more on bench players Terrence Phillips and Cullen VanLeer, who combined to play 23 minutes and score just five points. In the second half, though, those two played just 5 combined minutes while coach Cuonzo Martin leaned heavily on his starters, including Robertson and Jordan Barnett, both of whom were on the court for all of the game’s final 20 minutes.
Robertson, the starting point guard to begin the year, again took on more ball-handling responsibility.
Barnett scored 28 points Saturday on 8-of-13 shooting. He made six three-pointers. White called him the conference’s most improved player, someone with a deceptively fast release.
“You think you’re close enough, as we told our guys the last 48 hours,” White said of defending Barnett. “And you’re not. He demands you literally draped all over him.”
Barnett’s most impressive three-pointer came midway through the second half. With the shot clock nearing zero, he tossed a shot up from about 4 feet behind the arc and helped power a 13-1 Missouri run that ended with a Geist three-pointer. The Tigers were up 62-52 with 10 minutes remaining.
But thanks to Chiozza, who scored all 13 of his points in the second half, the Gators never went away. With about 5 minutes remaining, he drove to the basket and drew Tilmon’s fifth personal foul. It appeared Tilmon barely touched Chiozza, who hit two free throws, pulling the Gators within four.
Mizzou’s freshman center Tilmon has fouled out of two consecutive games and four this season.
“Everybody involved has got to figure out a way to let Jeremiah Tilmon play basketball,” a frustrated Martin said afterward, with his tie already off and his collar unbuttoned. “ … I just hope he doesn’t get a reputation. He’s doing the right things. He plays hard. It is what it is. Leave it on the floor. Let them play the game.”
A more costly call came with 21 seconds remaining, when referees said Robertson committed a foul on Florida’s leading scorer Jalen Hudson, who was attempting a three-pointer. It appeared on a replay that Robertson didn’t touch the arm of Hudson, who stuck his leg out to create contact.Hudson scored a team high 16 points, and he hit two of three free throws to tie the game at 75-75.
“I’m not going to talk about the referees,” Robertson said before leaning back and crossing his arms.
Martin said he wouldn’t talk about the officiating either, but he still made his feelings known.
“I’ll have to keep my mouth closed on a lot of stuff; I’ve never been one to say anything,” he said. “But it was very, very tough for me. Very tough for me, you know what I’m saying? It was probably the toughest one I’ve ever been a part of.”
Barnett said earlier in the week, after a win at South Carolina, that snapping a streak of 32 straight losses in conference road games was a “huge” confidence builder, and during portions of this game, Mizzou looked the best it had all season.
Three of Missouri’s first five field goals were three-pointers, all by Barnett, who outscored the Gators by himself through the first 9 1/2 minutes. Porter, who had a team high six assists, fed Barnett on all of those threes with passes from the post.
Mizzou grew its lead to 24-12 before the Gators staged a 10-0 run that helped give Florida a one-point lead going into the second half.
“For me, the last play is what you see,” Martin said of the loss. “But it’s not the last play. There’s a lot of things that take place. You can go back and watch film.”
He’s right. The late foul calls on Tilmon and Robertson didn’t help. Neither did Missouri going without a field goal for nearly 5 minutes, until a Porter layup with 1 minute 32 seconds remained put Missouri up 75-70.
But there’s an obvious irony here, in a turnover being what doomed the Tigers despite MU being more careful with the ball than it has been in past games.
In Missouri’s other losses, it turned the ball over more than it did Saturday: 14 times against Utah, 20 times against West Virginia and 21 times against Illinois.
Martin said he only spoke to his team for “about 10 seconds” after the game. He figured the pain of this loss had already sent whatever message he wanted to relay.
“It hurts,” Barnett said, before pausing for a moment. “A lot.”