Cuonzo Martin’s return to Knoxville wasn’t as memorable as his team could have made it, but it reminded Tennessee fans what made the Vols hire him in the first place.
Missouri put up a good fight against No. 1 Tennessee, especially on defense, in a 72-60 loss that the Tigers prevented from getting out of hand.
Freshman Javon Pickett led Missouri (11-10, 2-7 SEC) with 12 points while senior Jordan Geist added 11. Freshman Xavier Pinson had 10 points, eight rebounds and just one turnover in 32 minutes. Tennessee forwards Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams led the Vols (21-1, 9-0 SEC) with 13 points each.
Under Martin, Missouri has held Williams, who averages 20 points per game, to his two lowest outputs of the season. Martin declined to spill his secret to defending him.
“He is the best player in the league,” MU senior Kevin Puryear said of Williams. “There’s definitely a plan. Somebody like that requires a team effort. I think overall we do a great job of guarding him.”
Missouri’s second meeting with Tennessee had a few similarities to its first one. The Tigers weren’t intimidated by the Volunteers’ top ranking. Pickett scored seven of Mizzou’s first 17 points and was aggressive on offense despite taking a few bad shots.
After playing nine minutes in MU’s first game against Tennessee, Jeremiah Tilmon played 16 minutes in the first half Tuesday and got a touch on almost every possession. Tilmon injured his shoulder late in the first half but only sat out two minutes before returning.
The Tigers’ troubles came after Pickett scored a layup that put MU up 17-13 with just over 11 minutes remaining. Tennessee responded with an 18-2 run over an eight-minute stretch for a 31-19 lead. The run coincided with an MU scoring drought that spanned nearly six minutes.
“I thought some of the drought had to deal with us missing layups at the rim,” Martin said. “I thought we had tremendous opportunities at the rim. Those have to go. You can’t go against a team of this magnitude on the road and miss those type of shots. It’s just too hard to win games.”
A 7-0 run by Missouri cut the Vols’ lead to five points toward the end of the first half. Geist’s corner three with a minute remaining were the first points of the game for MU’s leading scorer. Tilmon’s late jumper sent the Tigers into halftime down 37-31.
Missouri had the Vols’ lead down to four early in the second half but struggled to get any closer. The Tigers started the second half shooting 2 for 10, and another scoring drought let Tennessee get the lead back up to 10.
The Tigers’ scoring droughts stem partly from personnel issues — the team is without star player Jontay Porter, who tore his right ACL and MCL before the start of the season. Last season, Missouri saw Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett become reliable scorers in the absence of Michael Porter Jr., Jontay Porter’s older brother, who is now in the NBA, but this MU team doesn’t have that.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have any heroes on this team,” said Puryear.
Puryear, a Blue Springs South High graduate, has struggled offensively of late. But he had a bounce-back game Tuesday with eight points and six rebounds. His layup with 12 minutes left cut the Vols’ lead to 10. Pickett later cut it to eight with another layup, but a pair of missed threes by Mitchell Smith prevented MU from getting the game within two possessions.
The Tigers were without sophomore guard Mark Smith for the fourth straight game, and his absence showed. Smith is one of the best three-point shooters in the country and MU shot just 29 percent from three-point range Tuesday.
Despite the loss, Missouri showed flashes of improvement. The Tigers had just nine turnovers for the second consecutive game and Tilmon was on the floor for 27 minutes. It was the seventh consecutive game in which Tilmon has played at least 26 minutes and scored eight or more points.
The sophomore center seems to be turning a corner with his foul issues.
“The one thing I said to our guys is if we take care of the basketball, we’re a different team,” Martin said. “If Jeremiah Tilmon is on the floor, we’re a different team. I like our chances against anybody if we take care of the basketball and Tilly is on the floor.”
Missouri’s next game is Saturday against Texas A&M. Tipoff is slated for 5 p.m. on the SEC Network.