Missouri rides strong defense and perimeter shooting to two wins to advance to finals at Advocare Invitational

The Tigers blew out Long Beach State on Thursday and squeaked by St. John’s University on Friday.

Freshman forward Kevin Puryear (24) drives past Auburn’s Horace Spencer (0) on Saturday night at Mizzou Arena. Puryear recorded his first career double-double in the 76-61 victory.

When Missouri announced Tuesday that much-heralded freshman Michael Porter Jr. would likely miss the remainder of the season with a back injury, head coach Cuonzo Martin said in a press release that the team was looking to move forward quickly.

“We're preparing now for a trip that is a tremendous opportunity,” Martin said in the release. “I'm excited to get after it in Orlando."

“Get after it in Orlando” is exactly what the Tigers have done. Missouri has now won both of its games at the Advocare Invitational and has a chance to win the tournament on Sunday.

Here’s a recap of what’s gone on in the team’s first two contests at the tournament.

Game 1 - Long Beach State

It was something of a Thanksgiving feast Thursday afternoon for the Tigers, as the team consumed Long Beach State from start to finish in the first round of the tournament.

Freshman Blake Harris contributed nine assists in his first start at point guard, and freshman forward Jontay Porter had four blocks, helping the Tigers roll to a 95-58 victory.

After an uninspiring performance Monday, in which Missouri struggled to get past Division II Emporia State, the Tigers came out firing on all cylinders Thursday and stormed out to a 13-2 lead in the game’s opening minutes. Missouri kept its foot on the gas and did not let up on either end in the first half, entering the break with 43 points while limiting the 49ers to 21 points on 20.7 percent shooting.

Replacing graduate transfer Kassius Robertson as the team’s primary ball handler, Harris led a more fluid and composed offense than the Tigers had seen during the season’s first four games. The freshman guard brought flow to the offense with his passing from the point and added 11 points to go with his team-leading nine assists.

Martin was pleased with his new starting point guard.

“I thought he did a good job,” Martin said. “You want to take care of the ball. Blake did a good job of directing traffic and being under control, even when he was attacking the rim.”

Porter continued to look anything but an 18-year-old. The 6-foot-11 freshman commanded the game, controlling the paint on the defensive end and playing with the post presence of a much more experienced player on the other. He finished with 15 points and five rebounds while hitting two of his three shots from beyond the three-point line.

Junior guard Jordan Geist gushed about Porter’s performance after the game.

“He’s a young kid who should be a senior in high school, and he’s been amazing,” Geist said. “You can’t ask anything more from him. The way he passes, shoots it, stretches the floor. He’s so hard to guard. He’s just like Mike [Porter Jr.]. You can’t let him shoot the ball. You can’t let him drive it. You let him drive and he’ll pass it. Good player.”

Defensively, Missouri continued to limit its opponents, forcing 19 Long Beach State turnovers and holding the 49ers to 24 percent shooting from three.

Game 2 - St. John’s University

Missouri’s Friday morning, second-round game against St. John’s was everything its first round matchup was not.

In a gritty and resilient effort, the Tigers pulled out a 90-82 win over the Red Storm.

Similar to Thursday’s contest, Missouri jumped out to an early lead on the backs of strong man-to-man defense and superior play in the paint, out-rebounding St. John’s 25-17 in the first half en route to a 42-36 halftime edge. But that’s where the similarities between the two games ended.

Missouri had no momentum going into the locker room, as St. John’s used a 12-3 run over the final 4:44 of the half to cut Missouri’s lead, once as large as 16, to just six.

The second half started even worse for Missouri than the first half ended. The Red Storm went on a 22-8 run to jump out to an eight-point lead, its largest lead of the game, at the 12:20 mark. Martin called timeout and made a switch to zone defense, and the Tigers immediately responded.

Following the defensive change, a Red Storm team that had been red-hot from the field went ice cold, and Missouri’s perimeter shooters found their rhythm again. Back-to-back threes from Porter and Robertson cut the Red Storm’s lead to two, and another three from Robertson at the 10:13 mark capped a 9-0 run for the Tigers and put Missouri back on top. Missouri and St. John’s proceeded to trade baskets down the stretch before a three from senior Jordan Barnett with 5:12 to go in the game gave the Tigers a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

While Missouri’s offensive output was balanced by five double-digit scorers, it was the play of Barnett, Robertson and Porter that particularly stood out.

Barnett scored a team-high 19 points and nine rebounds and shot 50 percent from three-point range, showing signs of working his way out of an early-season shooting funk. Robertson found his stroke, as well, burying 5 of 7 three-point attempts and putting up 17 points of his own. His effort paced Missouri’s tremendous day from beyond the three-point line, as the Tigers went 14-27 from beyond the arc.

No one was as impressive as Porter, however. The young big man had a career high in points for the second straight game with 16 and added five rebounds and three assists off the bench, despite fouling out.

Junior forward Kevin Puryear said Porter’s ability is underrated only because of who his brother is.

“He was top-10 in his class for a reason,” Puryear said. “He’s come such a long way since he’s come here ... Jontay has his own identity. I don't think you can just call him Michael's brother."

With the win, Missouri earned a date with the winner of the other semi-final game between University of Central Florida or West Virginia University in the Invitational’s championship game, set for Sunday at 8:30 p.m. CT.

Edited by Sam Nelson | snelson@themaneater.com

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