With four-and-a-half minutes to play, Missouri looked buried. TCU led by 12 points, and the Tigers hadn’t shown an ability to stop the Horned Frog offense, having surrendered 82 points in the first 36 minutes. Even after a five-point possession gave the team a pulse, TCU freshman Mike Miles drilled a tough step-back three-pointer to put the Horned Frogs up by six points with 1:45 remaining, and it looked like Missouri’s comeback effort would be too little, too late.
But Missouri hit four three-pointers and scored 14 points in the final three minutes, including a trio of clutch three-pointers from Xavier Pinson. As the clock ticked under five seconds in regulation, Kobe Brown grabbed an offensive rebound and found a wide open Pinson, who nailed the shot, sending the game into overtime despite the fact that Missouri never led in the second half. Jeremiah Tilmon and Pinson scored 10 of Missouri’s 13 points in the extra period and 69 of the team’s points for the game. The Tigers held on to win 102-98.
Below is our recap of the thriller, including what we learned.
* Before we get to the takeaways, we need to simply rehash how Missouri overcame its deficit in the final five minutes of regulation. The Tigers had kept the game close for the majority of the second half, but seemingly every time they would tie the game or cut TCU’s lead to one possession, the Horned Frogs would get a couple easy baskets.
The game finally started to feel like it was slipping away from Missouri when Miles banked in a tough layup around Tilmon, then stole a lazy inbounds pass and found RJ Nembhard for an open three-pointer. The five-point flurry gave TCU a seven-point lead with about seven minutes to play. TCU continued its momentum by outscoring Missouri 11-6 over the next few minutes, pushing its lead to a dozen.
At that point, Missouri’s chances of either stringing together enough stops or catching fire from three to the extent that it could erase the lead seemed slim. But Pinson gave the team a shot in the arm when, after Dru Smith made one free throw then missed the second, Missouri kept possession of the ball and Pinson swished a step-back three, plus drew a foul on Nembhard. The five-point possession cut TCU’s lead to four.
“It gave us as a group a lot of momentum, a lot of confidence, and it gave the crowd a lot of confidence, I feel like,” Pinson said. “And of course we capitalized.”
Jaedon Ledee drew a foul on the other end of the floor and made both free throws, but Missouri answered when Mark Smith rose up from the right wing and made his only three-pointer and only field goal of the day. Smith then kept Miles from getting into the lane, where he scored most of his 28 points, but Miles dribbled backward and threw up a tough three-pointer late in the shot clock with Smith’s hand in his face. The shot fell. Smith looked to the ceiling in disbelief.
Missouri didn’t panic, however. The Tigers went inside to Tilmon, who did what he did all game long: abuse one-on-one defense for a bucket. TCU then dribbled out the shot clock and missed a three-pointer. Pinson got the ball on a handoff and sank another three-pointer to cut Missouri’s deficit to one.
At that point, Missouri had to put TCU, which entered Saturday as one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the country, at the line. Miles came through by making both of his shots with 23 seconds left, meaning the Tigers would need another three to force overtime. Dru Smith initially took the shot. His attempt from the top of the key rimmed out. Tilmon tried to tip the ball in, but that missed as well — probably a good thing for the Tigers. Brown came up with the rebound. He heard Pinson calling his name and saw him wide open on the right wing.
Before the shot had even gone through the basket, Pinson stood posed with his right arm extended in a follow-through. With 3.9 seconds remaining, Missouri had tied the game at 89.
“I looked up and saw the score, saw that we were down three, knew we needed a three, so when (Tilmon) missed the tip-in, I got the ball and I was looking around, and that’s when I heard X calling me,” Brown explained. “So I just turned around and gave him the ball, and he knocked it down. Big-time play.”
Missouri started overtime the way it started the game, by getting the ball to Tilmon in the low post. He scored to give the Tigers their first lead in nearly 25 minutes. TCU wouldn’t just fold, however. Nembhard hit a tough jumper to put the Horned Frogs back on top with 1:35 left on the clock. But the lead would be short-lived. Missouri got Pinson an open three from the corner on the other end. He drained it, his eighth triple of the game.
Missouri got a bad break on the other end of the floor. Dru Smith dove after a loose ball as it headed out of bounds. He kept it in play, but sent it straight to Ledee. Kobe Brown tried to wrestle it away, but Ledee muscled the ball into the basket and Brown got whistled for a foul. Ledee then hit the free throw to retake the lead with less than a minute to play.
But Smith made amends on the other end, driving hard to the basket and kissing a layup high off the glass and in. And the shots finally stopped falling for TCU. Missouri iced the game at the free throw line, albeit in painstaking fashion. Pinson hit two free throws with 27 seconds left, then Brown grabbed a defensive rebound and got fouled with 12 seconds remaining. He missed both. Mark Smith tapped the second miss into the air, and Brown grabbed it and passed to Dru Smith. The career 87.7 percent free throw shooter also missed two straight, but he got bailed out by a lane violation on TCU, which gave him a third attempt. Smith drained it, giving Missouri a two-possession lead and icing the game.
In all, Missouri led for just 3:10 of the final 30 minutes of game action, but it was enough to avoid the upset.
“I never understood why teams would give up in situations like that, because what’s the worst that can happen, you lose a game?” head coach Cuonzo Martin said afterward. “So why not try to win the basketball game and work extremely hard, do the things that we practice, and give ourselves a chance? And that’s shifting your mindset, because human nature, that type of lead, crowd is out of it, you’re ready to give up and quit, and they just dug deep, made plays, drove the ball, executed stuff that we talked about in practice. Mark made a big three. Again, Kobe had a big rebound, he hit (Pinson) for that three, Dru had a great drive, (Tilmon) finishing the and-one. Just a great, great team win.”
* Prior to Saturday, Pinson had shown an ability to light up the scoreboard in the past. Just a week ago, he scored 27 points in Missouri’s upset at Tennessee. But he’s never done it quite like he did against TCU, by catching fire from behind the three-point line.
Pinson entered Saturday shooting 31.4 percent from three-point range for his career and 27.8 percent on the season. His previous career high for threes in a single game was four. Against TCU, Brown said, he looked like Stephen Curry. Pinson made 8 of 13 shots from behind the arc, and the Tigers needed every one of them. His 36 points represented a career high.
“He made some tough ones tonight,” Martin said. “But he spends a lot of time, he’s one of those guys that never really gets tired. … I’m happy for him.”
Pinson and his teammates attributed Pinson’s breakout shooting performance to his work between games. Tilmon said no matter what time he arrives at Missouri’s practice facility, Pinson is there getting up shots. Pinson said that practice gives him the confidence to shoot any time he has daylight during games.
“I put the work in, so it’s not a surprise for me,” Pinson said. “I mean, the shot’s going to go up if I’m open. If I miss, I’ll just shoot the next one. It’s just preparation, it’s all about the work you put in.”
* While Pinson will go down as the hero, Tilmon kept Missouri afloat for most of the game, routinely taking advantage of TCU’s one-on-one defense by either scoring, drawing a foul or both when he got the ball down low. He scored 17 points in the first half and a career-high 33 for the game. His 35 minutes played also tied a career high. He grabbed 11 rebounds, recording his fifth double-double in his last seven games.
After Missouri struggled to shoot the ball from the perimeter against Auburn, the game plan early was clearly to feed Tilmon. He responded by scoring 15 of Missouri’s 21 points. Still, TCU rarely sent two defenders at him, which Tilmon admitted surprised him.
“Coach Martin always emphasizes taking advantage of the mismatches,” Tilmon said, “and whenever somebody switches on me, forget the play, he says, just go post up. So that was what we were doing, get the ball in the paint. It’s something we work on, and he always say if someone switch on us, take advantage of the mismatch.”
Tilmon almost singlehandedly forced TCU starting center Kevin Samuel, who entered the game averaging 9 points and 9 rebounds per contest, to foul out with three minutes left in regulation. From that point on, Pinson said, “it was SOS” for TCU’s defense whenever Tilmon got the ball down low.
“If you’re defending him one on one, I’m taking those chances all night long,” Martin said of Tilmon.
Tilmon and Pinson became the first pair of Missouri teammates to score 30-plus points in the same game since Kareem Rush and Clarence Gilbert did so in a double-overtime win over Iowa State did so more than 20 years ago, on Dec. 16, 2000.
* Despite the scoring contributions of Pinson and Tilmon, Martin singled out a different player in his postgame press conference as the MVP. That honor went to Brown. The sophomore always seemed to be in the right place down the stretch. He only scored seven points, but he finished with 13 rebounds, two assists and two steals. Missouri outscored TCU by 10 points with him on the floor.
Brown came up particularly clutch on the offensive glass. Both Pinson’s four-point play and game-tying three in the final seconds came off rebounds by Brown. Five of his 13 boards came on the offensive end.
“I felt like I wasn’t getting boxed out too much, so when I saw that I just knew I had to make the extra effort and chase down the balls that didn’t come my way,” Brown said. “Just do what I could to help get my teammates second chances.”
Brown was strong on the defensive end of the floor, as well. His steal with 16 seconds left in overtime with Missouri leading by three points all but iced the game.
“Kobe’s a good all-around player, similar to your Jontay Porters and Dru Smiths,” Martin said. “Those guys’ impact, it’s not just scoring. Rebounding, steals, assists. So it’s not always their gauge how many points they score, it’s other things, and those were big-time rebounds with a team that can make threes and spread you out like that. Him guarding guys that can make shots, I got no one to help inside, I got no one to recover, that’s not easy.”
* Even before it tipped off, Saturday’s game represented a departure from the norm for Missouri. For the first time this season, Martin changed his starting lineup. Javon Pickett replaced Mark Smith, who had started the first 13 games of the season.
Pickett played well in the increased role, scoring 11 points in 34 minutes. Missouri is now 12-2 when he scores 10 or more points across the past two seasons. Martin called him a “construction worker,” saying you always know you’re going to get hard work from Pickett, regardless of how much he plays.
Smith, on the other hand, continued his shooting slump, at least for most of the night. But he didn’t let his shooting success, or lack thereof, dictate his defense, something Martin has implored him to avoid in the past. Martin switched him onto Miles for much of the final 10 minutes. Late in regulation and in overtime, Martin subbed Pickett into the game on offense and Smith for defense — a reverse of what you might have expected from those two players entering the season.
Smith then came through late in regulation. Missouri called a play designed to get him a three in the final two minutes, and he buried it. Martin hopes he can carry that shooting success over to future contests.
“Mark’s approach, he’s a professional,” Martin said. “He goes about his business, he works on his game. We need him, we want him to shoot balls, we need him to make shots, and I was happy to see that one.”
* While the result wound up favorable for Missouri, this win did come with one glaring red flag: Missouri’s defense. The Tigers could not stay in front of Miles and Nembhard, resulting in easy basket after easy basket for TCU. The Horned Frogs shot 54.9 percent from the floor. That’s the highest percentage Missouri has allowed since Feb. 24, 2018, when Kentucky also shot 54.9 percent. TCU’s 56.9-percent clip in regulation would have been the best shooting percentage allowed by the Tigers since Martin took over.
Missouri struggled defensively against Auburn on Tuesday, as well. The Tigers struggled to contain freshman star Sharife Cooper and gave up more than 80 points for the first time all season. Saturday was more of the same — but the situation made it much more concerning. For one, TCU has been woeful offensively of late. In their past three games entering Saturday, the Horned Frogs had averaged 48.7 points. They hadn’t shot better than 35.2 percent during that span. They also didn’t rack up points at the free throw line like Auburn. In fact, Missouri attempted more than double the free throws of TCU, 35 to 17, and outscored it at the line 21-13.
Martin attributed the defensive struggles to poor one-on-one defense. He said the Tigers adjusted by trapping TCU’s ball-handlers with both defenders out of ball screens late in the second half, rather than trying to fight through screens or switch. He believe that adjustment helped change the tone of the game, but he also acknowledged that the defense will need to be better moving forward.
“We have to be better with our on-ball defense, one on one defense,” Martin said. “That was the first thing I put on the board when it comes to our defensive assignments. Toughness, grit, one-on-one challenges, we have to embrace those, because those two guys can get to the rim.
“We’ll get back to the drawing board and try to tighten the screws up with our one on one defense.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: The defense was clearly the main reason why Missouri needed a miraculous comeback to beat a middling team, but free throw shooting also nearly cost the Tigers the game. Missouri, which had been solid at the line for much of the past season-and-a-half, picked up where it left off against Auburn, which was not a good thing. The Tigers shot just 60 percent from the charity stripe, 21 of 35.
Eight of those misses came from Tilmon, although he did improve from his 3-11 performance against Auburn. Tilmon shot 7-15 from the free throw line, which is less than ideal but not far off his season average of 50.7 percent. Then, three misses came in the final seconds of overtime — and it should have been four, if not for a lane violation by TCU. Brown missed a pair of freebies with a chance to extend Missouri’s lead to two possessions, then Dru Smith uncharacteristically missed two as well. But Smith got a mulligan thanks to TCU’s gaffe and took advantage.
STAR OF THE GAME: Brown may have been Martin’s pick for MVP, but we have to go with Pinson. The junior not only led Missouri in scoring, he came through with several incredibly clutch buckets when the Tigers needed them most. He took care of the ball, too, finishing with four assists compared to two turnovers. He tied for the team high in plus/minus at plus-14 in 33 minutes.
“That’s big-time,” Brown said of Pinson’s performance. “He’s always in the gym, so I’d expect nothing less from him.”
WHAT IT MEANS: This win won’t jump off Missouri’s resume at the end of the season, but avoiding a loss was big. Not only did the Tigers look for the majority of the contest like they were destined to lose a second game in a row, it would have represented the team’s first Quadrant 3 loss of the year and completely eroded the momentum gained with last Saturday’s marquee win at Tennessee. It’s also the type of win that will give the team confidence moving forward that it is never out of a game until the final horn sounds.
QUOTABLE: “All the coaches tell us, like their biggest thing is grit and just playing as hard as we can, doing the tough stuff, toughness every day. So in halftime in the locker room, everyone in the locker room was locked in and talking about we gotta do the little things, the tough things. We’re not looking for the highlight play, we’re just looking for the right play and to win the game, and I feel like that switch just flipped for the second half, and those were the results from it.” — Jeremiah Tilmon