Despite the absence of two starters, Missouri appeared equipped to handle Texas A&M on Saturday.
But a second-half collapse and a blown 12-point lead cost Missouri (11-11, 2-8 SEC) one of its most winnable games on the schedule in a 68-59 loss to Texas A&M (9-13, 2-8 SEC).
Missouri’s bench was short on Saturday as sophomore Mark Smith missed his fifth straight game with an ankle injury, while sophomore Jeremiah Tilmon was out after undergoing emergency oral surgery. The Tigers had just eight scholarship players plus walk-on Ronnie Suggs available at tipoff.
Texas A&M had its own depth problems with just six available scholarship players available after forward Josh Nebo was unable to play due to a knee injury.
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Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said after the game that Tilmon had his wisdom teeth removed on Wednesday. Martin learned shortly before shootaround on Saturday that Tilmon, MU’s 6-foot-10 center, was unable to go. Martin said he assumes Tilmon was still in pain from the operation. Martin was not sure of Tilmon’s status going forward. Tilmon hasn’t practiced since Missouri returned from Tennessee on Wednesday.
“He’s one of the better big men in the league,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said of Tilmon. “When you don’t have him he changes your team.”
Junior Reed Nikko got his first career start in Tilmon’s absence and provided an early spark for MU on offense with six points and three rebounds in the first half.
But Missouri continued to struggle on three-pointers without Smith, missing its first nine shots from beyond the arc. Javon Pickett broke the streak with a corner three that put MU up 20-16 with 4:40 left in the first half. Earlier in the game, Mitchell Smith set a screen that allowed Pickett to finish a thunderous one-handed dunk that got the fans at Mizzou Arena off their feet. Pickett led Missouri with 15 points.
The Tigers continued to receive strong play from freshmen Torrence Watson and Xavier Pinson, as Watson, who tied his career high with 12 points, continues to be more aggressive on offense, while Pinson establishes himself on defense. Pinson had three steals in the first half, one of which he capped with a no-look pass to Jordan Geist that put MU up 30-21 at halftime. Geist had 12 points in the loss. Missouri closed the first half on a 13-5 run but let Texas A&M guard T.J. Starks hit a three right before the buzzer, which gave the Aggies momentum going into the break.
“You allowed him to get his head up,” Martin said of Starks.
At the start of the second half, Watson picked up where he had left off, hitting a pair of threes that extended Missouri’s lead to 11 points. But Aggies forwards Wendell Mitchell and Christian Mekowulu combined for Texas A&M’s first 12 points in the second half, and a 7-0 run cut Missouri’s lead to four points with 11 minutes remaining. Mitchell led Texas A&M with 20 points in the game and was one of four Aggies in double-figures. Starks had nine of his 15 points in the second half and became too much for Missouri to handle. Watson said that the Tigers got a little complacent with the lead.
“We definitely should have kept it going,” Watson said. “We gave them a chance. We should have put our foot down.”
Savion Flagg’s three-pointer with just under eight minutes remaining put the Aggies up 46-44, their first lead since the game’s opening minutes. Texas A&M went on a 11-0 run to go up 57-47 with four minutes left. Missouri’s sloppy ball-handling helped the Tigers go scoreless for over three minutes. Pickett said Missouri’s ball-handling was a result of multiple miscommunications. Kennedy said he started switching ball screens on Missouri in the second half because he knew it could be a problem for the Tigers’ young guards, who still lack a lot of SEC experience. Nikko fouled out with 4:39 left and finished with eight points in 19 minutes.
Missouri got very little out of its bench, with Pinson’s five points being the lone contribution. K.J. Santos, Mitchell Smith and Suggs combined for zero points, one rebound and one steal in 34 minutes played. The trio took just three shots. Martin said he thought Missouri’s bench problems were based off production and not its lack of depth. The Tigers also took just four free throws the entire game, its lowest since shooting four in a loss at Nebraska in 2011.
The Tigers’ next game is against Arkansas on Tuesday. Tipoff is slated for 8 p.m. on ESPN.