University of Missouri

Inside Missouri’s final defensive stop, which secured its 79-78 win over Arkansas

Mizzou head coach Cuonzo Martin on the Tigers’ close win over Arkansas

Missouri Tigers head coach Cuonzo Martin discusses his team’s 79-78 win over the Arkansas Razorbacks on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.
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Missouri Tigers head coach Cuonzo Martin discusses his team’s 79-78 win over the Arkansas Razorbacks on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Missouri’s close win over Arkansas on Tuesday was thanks to a impressive defensive stop by the Tigers on the final play that caught the Razorbacks off guard.

The Tigers have Cuonzo Martin’s defensive mind to thank. He was expecting Arkansas to get the ball in star player Daniel Gafford’s hands, but ran a coverage that ended up addressing the actual play in addition to what Missouri prepared for.

With Arkansas trailing 79-76 with 11 seconds remaining, the Hogs ran a lob play for Gafford, a projected first-round pick in June’s NBA Draft, that cut MU’s lead to two with 10.5 seconds left. Seconds later, freshman point guard Xavier Pinson pushed off his man and was called for an offensive foul, giving Arkansas the ball.

Martin expected the Hogs to run some variation of the Gafford play.

“We expected them to come back to that same play,” Martin said. “It was 10 seconds, they had enough time.”

Martin made a defensive substitution, taking Pinson out for walk-on Ronnie Suggs, who has more length at 6-foot-6 than the 6-2 Pinson. The top priority was to prevent a lob pass.

Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said after Tuesday’s game that he wasn’t necessarily looking for a lob to Gafford, but was trying to have one of his players draw a foul or get to the basket.

After subbing in Suggs, Martin made another decision. He wanted the Tigers to switch on every ball screen.

The switch would leave Tilmon on the ball-handler, Jalen Harris, and Suggs on Gafford, a serious mismatch for the redshirt junior. But Martin wasn’t as concerned about Suggs’ assignment, because the Hogs would likely only have time to get one shot off — and it would have to get through Tilmon.

“We felt like the time would be an advantage for us,” Martin said.

For precautionary reasons, Martin had Kevin Puryear, a Blue Springs South graduate, by the basket in case Suggs needed help with Gafford. The risk was if Arkansas decided to shoot a three, Puryear would have to sprint out to the three-point line to close out on his man, Mason Jones.

Jones was inbounding the ball and Puryear said he expected him to hang out past the three-point line to be on standby for a three.

“The whole last play was kind of a blur to me,” Puryear said. “I was so focused on my guy. (Martin) was like, ‘Guard your man. Your man can’t score.’”

As expected, Arkansas inbounded the ball to Harris and immediately had Gafford set a screen for him. Tilmon switched onto Harris, while Suggs rolled off onto Gafford. Harris suddenly had nowhere to go.

“They weren’t expecting the switch,” Tilmon said. “So he tried to flop and throw the ball.”

With Tilmon walled up on him, Harris tried his best to either draw contact or create space. As the clock wound down, he made a last-second attempt to get the ball to Gafford. Despite giving up five inches to Gafford, Suggs was positioned in front of him and was able to get a pair of fingers on the heave and deflect it into the hands of Tilmon.

Tilmon cradled the ball as the final seconds ticked off and Jordan Geist and Javon Pickett arrived to guard the sophomore center from any Arkansas players.

Puryear read the screen and sprinted out to Jones behind the three-point line once he saw Harris had nowhere to go. As Tilmon caught Suggs’ deflection, Puryear raised his arms up in celebration.

“Didn’t get anything,” Anderson said of the play. “We didn’t get what we wanted.”

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Alex Schiffer has been covering the Missouri Tigers for The Star since October 2017. He came in second place for magazine-length feature writing by the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association in 2018 and graduated from Mizzou in 2017.