Entering Saturday, not only had No. 10 Alabama not lost in SEC play, they had blitzed the majority of the competition. Behind an active defense, a fast pace of play and a steady dose of three-pointers, the Crimson Tide had won their 10 conference wins by an average of 16.3 points.
Missouri gave Alabama a taste of its own medicine — at least for the majority of the game. In a matchup between the top two teams in the SEC standings, it was the Tigers who pushed the pace and stifled Alabama’s offense, jumping out to a 16-point halftime lead and leading by as many as 22 in the second half.
But the Tigers didn’t make a field goal for the final 6:13 and Alabama used a 21-2 run to cut the deficit to as little as one point. Senior Mitchell Smith came up with a pair of clutch defensive plays against Alabama’s Herb Jones in the final seconds, including a block of Jones’ layup with four seconds left. Jaden Shackleford’s off-balance three at the buzzer didn’t even hit the rim, giving Missouri a 68-65 victory.
“Those last couple possessions, to get the rip, settle down, buckle down and get stops, we did that,” head coach Cuonzo Martin said. “So that speaks volumes about our guys, the growth of our guys. … Those two stops were impressive.”
The win marked Missouri’s third of the season over a team ranked in the top 10 at the time and improved the team to 13-3. The Tigers are now two games behind Alabama for the SEC lead but will have the tiebreaker between the two teams, with today being their only meeting of the season.
Below is our recap of the win, including what we learned.
* Missouri’s defense around the rim won the Tigers the game, and not just in the final minute. Much has been made of Alabama’s three-point shooting throughout this season, and Missouri did a good job of limiting the Tide’s opportunities from behind the arc. But the biggest difference between Alabama’s performance Saturday and the rest of their SEC games came in their shooting around the basket.
The Crimson Tide shot just 13-41 from two-point range and 11-23 on layups. Missouri finished with nine blocks. All of that led to Alabama shooting 33.3 percent from the field, its second-lowest mark of the season and lowest in SEC play. The Crimson Tide are now 0-9 under head coach Nate Oates when they score fewer than 70 points.
Martin praised his players’ ability to defend drivers one-on-one without needing help, which would result in an open three.
“We just talked about put your chest on the ball,” Martin said. “Put your chest on the ball, don’t swipe down and jump high. Because again, I think they’re great at, when they dribble penetrate, you help, they find guys for three. If that’s the case, you got to chest-to-chest, make that drive hard, show your hands, jump high, make them guys go over the top of you all night long. And I thought our guys did not an average job but an exceptional job of doing that.”
The two biggest stops around the basket, of course, came when Alabama had two possessions in the final minute trailing by just a point. Both times, the Crimson Tide went to Jones, who played just 22 minutes Saturday due to foul trouble. The first time, Jones got the ball around the left elbow, faked a handoff to a teammate and drove to the basket. He had to alter his shot a bit due to the presence of Smith, but the ball still made it to the rim, where it rolled a full 360 degrees before falling out.
“He faked the handoff between me and (Xavier Pinson) and just went to the basket,” Smith recounted. “I had to try to make a play on the ball and make it hard for him any way that I could, and he just ended up missing the layup.”
Missouri’s Mark Smith got the layup and drew a foul, but he missed the front end of a one-and-one. That gave Alabama another opportunity, still down a point, with 11 seconds left.
This time, Jones set up on the right side of the floor. He acted like he was going to set a screen for point guard Jahvon Quinerly, but before Quinerly arrived, he turned and darted toward the basket. Mitchell Smith had been expecting to switch and got caught behind the play. But Dru Smith helped off his defender and met Jones at the low block and jumped to block his shot, forcing Jones to pump-fake. That gave Mitchell Smith time to recover. When Jones went up for his layup, Mitchell Smith extended his right arm and smacked the ball off the backboard.
“I just kind of helped out to help (Pinson) because I thought we were going to switch, and then Herb slipped to the basket,” Mitchell Smith said of the play. “Dru came over, doing great help and made Herb shot fake, and I just saw my opportunity to jump up and block it, and, I mean, it went according to plan and I got a block.”
“That block was big,” sophomore Kobe Brown said. “That was a big-time play.”
While Smith’s block preserved Missouri’s lead, it didn’t quite seal the game. Pinson came up with the loose ball and got fouled with four seconds remaining. He knocked down both free throws. Alabama then had to go the length of the floor and hit a three-pointer to tie. Martin said he instructed his players not to foul and to give up any drives to the basket, but not to give up any open threes. Shackleford ended up trying a desperate heave off one foot over Dru Smith as the final horn sounded.
“We didn’t consider fouling,” Martin said. “We were going to sit down and play defense and make it tough, everything over the top. And there’s certain things we talk about, what we’re giving up. We give up a layup and take our chances taking the ball out with two seconds left. We weren’t giving up clean threes.”
The stat of the game: Missouri out-scored Alabama in the paint 46 to 22. A Tiger defense that had struggled mightily to keep driving guards out of the lane against both Auburn and TCU sealed off the paint for much of Saturday’s game, forcing Alabama out of its offensive rhythm.
“We have stressed that all week,” Mitchell Smith said. “Coach told us not to let them inside the paint, they have to make tough, contested threes against us. So we felt like guys kind of sank in and we helped each other very well and that’s how we got the win today.”
* Alabama entered Saturday’s game playing the fastest pace of any team in the SEC, but it was Missouri that set both the tone and the tempo early., and Alabama looked like it got caught off-guard.
Usually animated on the sidelines, Martin was especially energetic Saturday, bounding up and down the sidelines and pumping his fists. His players brought the same energy on the defensive end, jumping in front of passing lanes and poking balls away. They finished the game with 11 steals. Then, whenever possible in the first half, the Tigers hustled down the floor in search of easy scoring opportunities. Missouri scored 20 fast-break points, all in the first 27 minutes of the game.
“We never had any doubt in our mind to make it a slow-paced game,” Martin said. “That’s not who we are anymore. We wanted to speed the game up and play basketball.”
Perhaps the biggest factor in Missouri’s offense becoming bogged down in the final six minutes was that the Tigers tried to slow down. Martin said he instructed his players to do so, fearing a rash of quick shots or turnovers could let the Crimson Tide back in it. In hindsight, Martin said said, he should have instructed the team not to lighten the pace.
“Part of it was me slowing the guys down a little bit because I thought we got excited in some areas instead of keeping our foot on the pedal,” Martin said. “We got excited and not aggressive. Then they turned the heat up and we became passive. I have more to blame for that than the players, so I have to be better in that area.”
* Speaking of Missouri’s near-collapse, let’s take a deeper look at what went wrong in the final six minutes, a stretch that started with the Tigers leading by 20 points. In addition to the pace slowing down, Martin said center Jeremiah Tilmon lost his aggressiveness down the stretch. Alabama sent two defenders at Tilmon almost every time he touched the ball down low. As a result, Tilmon, who entered the game averaging 15.1 points per contest in conference play, scored just nine.
Martin said Tilmon needed to continue to demand the ball down the stretch, because even if he doesn’t score, his presence opens up driving opportunities in the halfcourt offense.
“I don’t think Jeremiah was as assertive in posting because of the doubles and all those things,” Martin said. “And like I told him, I said, man, you’re an elite level low post guy, that physical, they’re not going to allow you to beat them. They’re going to make other people beat them. So he has to stay aggressive, stay assertive, take the double-team, whatever happens, find open guys. And I thought what happened, he settled in being aggressive with posting, and I thought our guys settled, because they looked at the score instead of finishing the game on the floor. And you can’t do that with this level of team, with the way they drive the ball and make plays.”
Dru Smith agreed that Missouri’s offense got stagnant late in the game. The Tigers continually waited out the shot clock, which forced them to take deep or contested jumpers. They made just one of their final 11 shots.
Smith also said that, when Missouri slowed down its offensive pace, its transition defense suffered as well. During Alabama’s 21-2 run, five of its buckets came on fast-break layups.
“Honestly, we got away from getting back in transition defense,” he said, “and I think that was really the difference there for those six minutes or so.”
* Mitchell wasn’t the only Smith who deserves some love for his performance. While Dru Smith made a few questionable decisions on the offensive end late in the game, he played a large role in Missouri building its early lead. Smith picked up right where he left off earlier in the week, when he scored 26 points in Missouri’s win over Kentucky, by scoring nine points in the first four minutes. He finished with a team-high 16 points plus eight rebounds and four assists.
Missouri also got a good game from Mark Smith, despite the fact that he shot just 1-8 from three point range. After coming off the bench the past two games, Smith started in place of the injured Javon Pickett on Saturday. His defense and energy looked like Pickett; Smith finished the game with 12 points and five steals. He shot 4-6 from inside the three-point arc.
Martin said that, when Smith was struggling earlier this season, he would get “consumed” with his three-point shot. If the ball wasn’t going in, the rest of his game would suffer. He was pleased to see Smith play with energy on both sides despite his sub-par shooting against Alabama.
“I thought he played a good game,” Martin said. “He had five steals, he was aggressive. When he was struggling, I don’t think he was defending at the level. I thought he did a great job defending today. … That’s the Mark Smith we know.”
* Missouri just keeps finding ways to win close games. The Tigers are now 5-0 this season in games decided by five points or fewer, including three straight such victories. In the past week, they’ve overcome a 12-point deficit in the final five minutes and one in which they blew a 22-point second-half lead. But the common denominator: the team has won.
Both Martin and Mitchell Smith said a key factor Saturday was Missouri being able to keep its composure down the stretch against Alabama, even as its lead rapidly evaporated.
“In the timeouts, really, coach was telling us keep our composure, game’s not over yet, we’ve got plenty of time to play, so just keep doing what you’re doing, keep hooping and don’t try not to lose, but just keep playing to win,” Smith said.
There’s an undeniable element of luck to winning that many close games in a row. Martin even joked after Wednesday’s win that this team is lucky. But there’s also something to be said for having experience gutting out close contests already this season. Dru Smith said that no matter what the situation, Missouri’s players believe they can win. That’s a trait that should only help in the final month of the season.
“We’ve been here before,” he said. “We’ve been in close games. We’ve played a lot of close games this year. So I think we’re confident as a team, we understand how to get stops down the stretch, and we were able to pull it out.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: For the second game in a row, Missouri’s halfcourt offense stalled out down the stretch. Once the Tigers stopped getting out in transition because they were trying to protect the lead, they couldn’t score. As mentioned above, Missouri missed 10 of its final 11 shots and didn’t make a field goal in the final six minutes. If that trend continues, Missouri is going to find itself on the losing end of one of these games.
“I think we were a little stagnant and we weren’t really getting good looks there in the second half — well, later in the second half,” Dru Smith said. “We weren’t running as much in transition. I thought early we were doing a great job of getting the ball out, getting some easy layups. So I think there was a little bit of a shift there on the offensive end and we just needed to be a little bit more aggressive.”
STAR OF THE GAME: While Dru Smith had the best all-around stats, Mitchell Smith is the hero. The senior had eight rebounds, including four on the offensive end. He had two put-backs and the fadeaway jumper he hit with 6:13 left wound up being huge, as Missouri wouldn’t make another shot afterward. He didn’t attempt a three-pointer after shooting 1-6 from deep last game. And of course his defense on Jones two possessions in a row sealed the victory.
“The Mitch in the last two games, that’s the Mitch we’re accustomed to seeing,” Martin said. “And like I’ve said before, Mitch is like an American Express card, you can’t leave home without it. Now, he hasn’t been there lately, so it might be overdue, but the last couple games he’s been that American Express card, he’s done a great job.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Winning the SEC regular season title is still a possibility for Missouri, although it would take either the Tigers being near-perfect or Alabama falling apart down the stretch. More important than that, however, the Tigers just keep adding to their postseason resume. They have now beat three teams currently ranked in the top 13 in the NET. And while the offensive meltdown late in the game is certainly cause for some concern, the fact that Missouri, just a few years removed from being perennially non-competitive in the SEC, is in position to nit-pick a win over a team that was 10-0 in conference play represents a quantum leap forward.
QUOTABLE: “I thought it was a great performance, even the last, whatever, three-plus minutes of the game. Told our guys I’m real proud of them. You have to celebrate these type of moments, because they don’t come often. We have a program that beat three top-10 teams in the country. That says a lot about your program, that says a lot about your personnel, your staff, your players, your organization and the time and commitment, all those things.” — Cuonzo Martin