When a team contains its opponent’s top two scorers, it rarely loses by 24 points. Missouri managed to do both Tuesday.
The Tigers only allowed three first-half points to Tennessee’s Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, both of whom average nearly 20 a game, but they still trailed by 11 at halftime. Cuonzo Martin’s squad fell 87-63 to the No. 3 Volunteers in the team’s SEC opener, the Tigers (9-4, 0-1 SEC) most lopsided loss of the season.
“I think you’ve got to definitely give Missouri credit,” Tennessee (13-1, 2-0) coach Rick Barnes said. “There’s no question, when you look at us you look at two guys that have been pretty consistent. (An opponent has) to take something away from them, make somebody else do some things.”
Unfortunately for Missouri, the Volunteers have plenty of players who can make plays. They had five players score at least nine points Tuesday, and all but three of Schofield’s points came with the Volunteers leading by more than 10 points. Williams, the SEC’s leading scorer at 19.9 points a game, fouled out after making only one field goal.
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While Tennessee showed off its wealth of contributors, the Tigers couldn’t keep their top players on the court. Jeremiah Tilmon, the Tigers’ leading rebounder and No. 3 scorer, collected two fouls within the first three minutes of the game and sat out the rest of the first half.
Starters Mark Smith and Javon Pickett also found themselves in foul trouble, forcing freshmen Xavier Pinson and Torrence Watson to play the bulk of the first half. Reserve forward Reed Nikko had to play down low in place of Tilmon.
“We had some guys that played extended minutes, and they get fatigued, and then all of the sudden it shows on both sides of the ball,” Martin said.
The fouls didn’t stop Missouri and its bench players from a fast start. Barnes said the Tigers punched Tennessee in the mouth early, and Missouri led 27-18 with seven minutes left in the half.
The Volunteers answered with a 24-4 run that saw baskets from four different players. Williams and Schofield (18.2 PPG) sat on the bench for most of the stretch, and neither of them scored.
Pickett missed two free throws with Missouri up six — not a recipe for success against a top-10 opponent — and Tennessee grabbed the rebound after his second shot. Jordan Bowden made a layup in transition, and Jordan Bone followed with a three-pointer and two free throws to give Tennessee a lead it never relinquished.
“I felt like our offense, we got pretty stagnant,” said Missouri’s K.J. Santos, who finished with a season-high seven points. “I thought we could do a better job moving around, trying to get open.”
Bowden came off the bench for Tennessee and led all scorers with 20 points. Bone added 17 of his own.
Fouls kept Tilmon on the bench for all but nine minutes, and the Tigers’ couldn’t contain Tennessee forward Kyle Alexander on the court. The 6-foot-11 senior finished with 14 points and 17 rebounds. Barnes said the big man focused more on defense his past two games, and he’s taking smarter shots.
“He changed the whole game for them,” Missouri senior Kevin Puryear said.
Puryear had a strong defensive showing matched up against Williams, but he thought the Tigers made defensive mistakes they had been avoiding during their six-game win streak.
“We know that we can compete with the best of them, but in order to beat those teams we have to play a full 40 minutes,” Puryear said. “We didn’t do that tonight.”