Mizzou holds off Vandy, snaps losing streak
COLUMBIA, MO. • Back at Mizzou Arena for the first time since gagging away a 14-point lead against Louisiana State, Missouri picked a good time to snap out of its latest slump.
With a 77-67 victory over more hapless Vanderbilt in the fourth annual “Rally for Rhyan” charity game, the Tigers ended their second three-game losing streak of the new year and salvaged a pinch of momentum heading into a doozy of a road trip.
But first, Mizzou took a step forward on the backs of its youth. Freshmen and sophomores accounted for 57 of the Tigers’ 77 points, none bigger than Torrence Watson’s NBA-range 3-pointer with 3:30 left that extend their lead to eight.
“I was really feeling that shot,” said the freshman, who launched the shot-clock beater from the final “t” in Norm Stewart on the coaching legend’s court. “I was talking to (Jordan Geist) after, and he said that he could just hear me calling his name.”
With Geist controlling the attack from the point — the senior tallied six assists with his 15 points — the Tigers had an answer for every Vanderbilt rally in the second half, unlike last Saturday’s meltdown against LSU, when Mizzou frittered away a two-touchdown lead in the final minutes and lost in overtime.
Not this time.
“Honestly, bro, at the end of game I kind of got scared,” sophomore center Jeremiah Tilmon said. “I was like, we have to finish this game.”
The man in the middle made sure of that. In the final minutes, Geist followed Watson’s 3 with one of his own, then Tilmon grabbed a crucial offensive rebound to set up a Geist runner in the lane. Tilmon’s baseline jumper with 50 seconds left kept the Tigers in front by eight and safely in charge.
Once again, Tilmon avoided needless fouls and stayed on the floor, this time for 35 minutes and finished with a team-high 19 points, plus eight rebounds and only one turnover.
With their first home win of 2019, the Tigers (11-9, 2-6 Southeastern Conference) snapped a three-game losing streak and improved to 4-0 in the annual “Rally for Rhyan” game, named after 8-year-old cancer survivor Rhyan Loos, the daughter of assistant athletics director and former basketball assistant Brad Loos. The game raised $55,000 for pediatric cancer research, MU announced.
The performance also proved the Tigers can survive without starting guard Mark Smith. The team’s second-leading scorer and the SEC’s top 3-point marksman missed a third straight game with a sprained left ankle. Without Smith, freshman guards Watson (12 points), Javon Pickett (12) and Xavier Pinson (nine) all factored into the attack, while sophomore Mitchell Smith took on a bigger role at power forward, giving MU five points in 20 minutes. The youth was on display from the opening tip, when Pickett scored MU’s first six points and Tilmon scored seven before picking up his first foul.
“I always trust that we can lean on them, especially when you have guys like Tilly who keep going no matter what,” Geist said. “We have a bunch of young guys who have a lot of confidence right now from playing a lot of games.”
Tilmon provided the night’s comic relief, too. In the final seconds of the first half, he grabbed a defensive rebound and instantly launched a Hail Mary to the other basket, not knowing 3 seconds were left on the clock. The shot smashed into the backboard, going down as Tilmon’s first official career 3-point attempt. It did not connect.
“J.T. looked like Drew Lock out there,” Geist said.
Tilmon explained he thought the clock said 0.3 seconds, not 3.0 seconds.
“I thought I was going to make it,” he said. “As long as I didn’t break the backboard.”
Vanderbilt (9-12, 0-8) doesn’t force many turnovers, but by their standards, the Tigers were nearly flawless securing the ball in the first half, going 13:53 before their first turnover, a Geist giveaway along the baseline.
“I told the guys I won’t even say the word (turnover) the rest of the season,” Martin said.
That seemed to work. MU matched its season low with nine turnovers.
For all the production Martin got from Tilmon and his rookies, Vandy coach Bryce Drew was quick to credit Geist, who started the game on the wing but handled the ball most of the night.
“You can’t underestimate a veteran at the point guard position,” Drew said. “Geist brings a lot of confidence to the floor. He makes a lot of winning plays. I think as long as he’s on the floor they’re going to be in a lot of games and have a lot of chances to win games the rest of this season.”
They’ll need more than steady play from Geist to survive the next challenge. Missouri heads to Tennessee on Tuesday to face the No. 1 Volunteers, owners of the nation’s longest winning steak at 16 games. The game will mark Martin’s first return to Knoxville, Tenn., since he ended his three-year run as the Vols coach in 2014. Tennessee throttled Mizzou by 24 points on Jan. 8 in Columbia.