Missouri played its final game for 11 days without most of its bigs, as foul trouble hampered the Tigers in a 80-64 win over Oral Roberts.
It was MU’s third straight win. Despite having three players take turns battling foul trouble, the Tigers tied a season-high with 12 threes to help overcome the whistle.
Illinois transfer Mark Smith led six Missouri players in double figures while shooting 50 percent from the field and beyond the arc.
The Tigers jumped out to a 15-4 lead with help from Jeremiah Tilmon, who Oral Roberts elected not to double team in the post. Tilmon took advantage and finished in the paint twice, while drawing a foul. He finished with 12 points and six rebounds.
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The Golden Eagles opened the game in a full-court press on Missouri to try and force turnovers, MU’s known weakness, which worked as Oral Roberts forced seven in the first half. Missouri got its ball security together and only let up three in the second half.
“We’ve worked on it a lot,” said Jordan Geist on the turnovers. “We just have to be smart with it.”
Oral Roberts slowly chipped away at Missouri’s lead and took advantage of the foul trouble incurred by Tilmon, Reed Nikko and Mitchell Smith. Nikko had four fouls in the first half while playing only five minutes. The foul trouble by Nikko led Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin to send in junior college transfer K.J. Santos, who made his MU debut with 10:46 left in the first half and put Oral Roberts into the bonus less than halfway through the first 20 minutes. Santos had missed the first eight games with a fractured right foot.
He showed some rust, but Martin was pleased with his performance and remains optimistic about Santos’ improvement in the coming weeks. The 6-foot-8 sophomore finished the game with a rebound and a steal in 11 minutes.
“He’s a dynamic player,” said senior Kevin Puryear of Santos. “Can shoot the ball get a post-up, drive the ball. Also can defend.”
A 6-0 run by Oral Roberts over a 90-second stretch cut Missouri’s lead to 22-21 with 3:56 left in the half. With Missouri having to play small with three players in foul trouble and use Puryear as a center, the Tigers’ offense went stagnant at times and struggled to score.
“We hadn’t spent a lot of time going against a 1-3-1 (zone),” Martin said. “The biggest thing we try to do is post up Tilmon, but I think when he was in foul trouble, that’s when they went to it.”
A pair of threes by Mark Smith and another from Torrence Watson sent Missouri into the half with some breathing room, up 33-26.
Missouri got some push from Oral Roberts in the second half despite getting Tilmon back to run offense through. A pair of threes from DeShang Weaver with 16 minutes left cut Missouri’s lead to 37-34. Watson hit another corner three the following possession. He finished 4 for 4 from three and had a career-high 12 points for the second straight game. Four straight points from Kerwin Smith with 14 minutes left cut MU’s lead to 40-38, which is where Geist took over.
Geist, a senior guard, scored an athletic layup off a fastbreak and then stole the following inbounds pass and scored off it while picking up the foul. Geist converted the three-point play to spark a 10-0 Missouri run that ultimately put the game out of reach. The 6-foot-2 guard finished with 12 points and said after the game that his back injury has been improving.
Martin considered Geist’s steal-and-score a momentum changer for his group since it put Missouri’s offense into another gear.
“Those two plays really jacked us up,” Puryear said. “That’s an energy play. It built a low of momentum. That’s how we closed out the game.”
Emmanuel Nzekwesi led Oral Roberts with 17 points and six rebounds for the game. The Golden Eagles dropped to 3-9 on the season.
The Tigers were without freshman Christian Guess, who was ineligible after dropping a class, which brought him below the NCAA-required credit number to play in games. Martin was unsure of Guess’ status going forward but added that Guess dropping the class doesn’t mean his grades are a concern.
Missouri is off until Dec. 18 when the Tigers face Xavier and first-year coach Travis Steele. Tipoff is slated for 6 p.m.