Vahe Gregorian

Mizzou breaking through under Cuonzo Martin

If not for quirky timing and some simple twists of fate, Cuonzo Martin would have been hired by Missouri instead of Tennessee in 2011.

MU had tried to persuade Martin, then at Missouri State, to wait on-deck while it pursued Purdue’s Matt Painter, Martin told The Star last year. But by the time Painter jilted Mizzou, “the train was already moving with Tennessee” — and it was a point of integrity for Martin to honor that.

Strange how things can unravel … and circumstances might play out … and ultimately connect in the long haul.

Four years ago, after taking the Volunteers to the Sweet 16, Martin left Tennessee for California amid 40,000 hysterical fans signing an online petition seeking his firing in favor of … Bruce Pearl, the charismatic and disgraced man he had replaced.

Three years later, he left Cal for the job he was meant for in the first place, Mizzou. And the delayed gratification continues to pay dividends.

On Wednesday at Mizzou Arena, that came in the form of MU’s first win over a ranked team in 20 tries since Dec. 7, 2013, a 59-55 victory over No. 21 — as it happened — Tennessee.

It was the first time in his head-coaching career that Martin had faced a previous employer.

But that was truly incidental in this, said Martin, who hadn’t coached any of the Tennessee players on the court Wednesday and said “it was just a job and a task at hand.”

And you can take him at his word:

Among the many things that distinguish Martin is his ability to truly be in the moment and compartmentalize what matters — as he demonstrated with his resolve and instant push forward after the almost immediate loss of the much-ballyhooed Michael Porter Jr.

He doesn’t have time for self-pity or pettiness, and he also knows this win was a moment, not an arrival, a step that may or may not prove transformative.

But, hey, there’s no reason the rest of us can’t appreciate the symbolic symmetry of this breakthrough coming against Tennessee.

Particularly with timing that was just about essential for MU if it hopes to maximize this season of revival — at 13-5, the Tigers appear on the way to winning at least as many games as they did in the last two seasons combined (18) — by earning an NCAA Tournament berth.

In the process, the Tigers not only snapped the futility against ranked teams but also put a stop to another pertinent trend of not being able to close out games — including their 83-79 loss to current No. 6 West Virginia in November.

I have a friend who likes to say things that fall short were “so almost,” and that was starting to be the signature of a season that will be defined by the ability to prevail in the game-in, game-out grind of a suddenly thorny and deep Southeastern Conference.

The recent heartbreakers down the stretch against Florida and Arkansas were still fresh on Wednesday as MU’s 53-43 lead had dissolved in the final minutes to 55-54 on a Grant Williams jumper with 1 minute 33 seconds left.

This time, though, MU bucked instead of buckling in the final minute, boosted by defense highlighted by a Kassius Robertson steal, two free throws by Jordan Geist with 14 seconds left and two more by Kevin Puryear with 4 left to virtually seal it.

“Big moment, a big moment for Mizzou basketball, a big moment for this team, especially for the guys who are returning: We took a lot of bumps,” said junior Puryear, who came off the bench for 10 rebounds and 12 points. “It’s a great feeling.

“Now it’s not time for us to stop; it’s time for us to carry this momentum into our future games.”

In one sense, Martin would have preferred that it not come down to that again.

“I hate to be tested like that all the time,” he said, laughing. “Because it does something to my heart.”

Just the same, he added, “You’ve got to learn. You’ve got to go through it.”

Especially if you’re a team made up of newcomers and players who were part of 45 losses the last two seasons.

“We did a really good job of taking that punch and coming right back,” Robertson said. “In terms of finish games, it was a huge, huge step in the right direction for sure.”

A step that left MU 3-2 in SEC play — more conference wins than they had last season (2-16) and matching the league wins they’d had in the previous two under Kim Anderson — with 13 games left.

Martin already has made his mark on the program, both in terms of recruiting Porter and brother Jontay, who is crucial to this team, and coaxing more out of players like Jordan Barnett.

He’s brought fans back to Mizzou Arena (the crowd on Wednesday was announced as 15,061, meaning tickets sold, and it appeared about 80 percent full).

Stoked by Martin, a mental toughness is prevailing here — including in ending a 36-game overall true road losing streak (at Central Florida).

For a lighthearted example of how Martin thinks, when asked about Robertson playing 40 minutes on Wednesday, he noted that like Barnett (35 minutes) he doesn’t seem to get tired.

“So I don’t know if they’re playing hard enough,” he said, laughing, and adding that he actually wouldn’t be surprised if Robertson was shooting baskets after the game because of his relentless work ethic.

So this was one night, yes, but a night that purged more of the painful recent past and helps MU move more into a challenging but promising present as it takes on the telling part of the season.

“We’re not consumed with what happened in the past,” Martin said. “We can learn from it, but we can’t have it in us.”

Speaking for his team … and maybe for himself, too.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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