The Maneater

Against all odds, Puryear’s shot saves Missouri, sinks Mississippi State

Mizzou lost a 12-point lead in the last two minutes, then rallied from down 5 late in overtime for a dramatic fourth straight win.

Kevin Puryear dribbles around a Mississippi State defender on Feb. 10, 2018.

Missouri basketball is back. Missouri basketball is broken. It’s found a semblance of control, and has never felt more in pieces. Its identity is incomprehensible, and every moment of basketball it plays still makes every bit of sense. It has fallen apart time after time and has still climbed a mountain higher than expectation and precedent should permit.

So naturally, after all had gone to hell in a game that it led by 12 with 1 1/2 minutes left, after 17 unanswered points had broken Mizzou Arena and a suffocating full-court press had broken its home team, after 25 seconds of running its offense had yielded nothing, Mizzou used those other five seconds to make its biggest play of the year.

Or maybe its biggest in the last five.

“It ended up being pretty big for us,” junior Kevin Puryear said.

Because on his come-from-behind 3 with 10 seconds left, the Tigers found a way to prevail 89-85 in overtime against Mississippi State in a Saturday afternoon game that upended basketball conventions and reaffirmed any sense of chaos that accompanies Mizzou in the odyssey that has been the 2017-18 season. Missouri (17-8, 7-5 Southeastern Conference) is a winner of four straight SEC games for the first time since 2012, and it seems closer than ever to being a lock for the NCAA Tournament a year after totaling eight wins.

Much like the season, Saturday’s game made sure to produce more twists – and more headaches – than should be possible.

The Tigers cruised to a 79-67 advantage with 90 seconds left, then stepped aside to the corner – much as they did on several of the inbound plays that induced turnovers – to watch as Mississippi State scored the last 12 points of regulation. One of those turnovers led to a transition pull-up triple to tie it with 24 seconds to play. Mizzou forced a bad shot at the other end and the home crowd watched in stunned silence as five minutes of overtime were added to the clock.

“Us guards, we didn’t get open for inbounders,” junior Jordan Geist said. “We fell back on our heels and let them come back.”

The Bulldogs tagged Missouri for 5 more to start the extra frame, making it a 17-0 run in total and an 84-79 deficit for the Tigers in what seemed like an increasingly worthless overtime period. Prior to that period, Mississippi State hasn’t led since it was 21-20. Then Missouri started to get to the line, and finally, down 2 with little more than a minute left, Puryear threw up his arm after another missed shot for a nifty tip-in.

It was Missouri’s first field goal in more than eight minutes. More importantly, the game was again tied.

“We had to do what we did to get the lead [earlier],” Geist said.

The Bulldogs went back on top by one with the second end of a pair of foul shots, and Mizzou had to find one last miracle.

It got just that from a guy who had done it before, with a buzzer-beating dagger to down Auburn in the SEC Tournament the previous March. This time, at the tail end of a broken play as the shot clock disappeared, a trapped graduate transfer Kassius Robertson could only dish to the hands of Puryear in the corner.

“I said to [Puryear], you’re passing up too many shots; shoot the ball,” head coach Cuonzo Martin said. “And he stepped up and shot that one.”

Not bad for a guy who was 0 for his last 12 3s, and who hadn’t sunk anything from outside the arc since Jan. 10.

Thanks to him, Feb. 10 has a new kind of meaning in the ballad of Missouri basketball.

That meaning also wouldn’t exist without Geist, who tacked on 17 points and drained four of his six 3-point attempts. He also took (and sold) a questionable charge from a hurrying Mississippi State team seconds after Puryear’s magic. It set up Robertson to drive the nail into the coffin with a pair of game-icing foul shots.

“I didn’t sell it at all,” Geist said on the charge as a smirk emerged. “He pushed off.”

Aside from those free throws that eased Missouri fans’ hearts, Robertson led the Mizzou charge with 22 points and five 3s of his own. Fourteen of those points came in the first half, when the Tigers worked past a slow first three minutes to take their first 12-point lead of the game. That one was knifed to 3 with six minutes left, before being stretched again, then cut again.

It was almost as though that perpetual plot twist existed only to display one magnificent microcosm for a season that has left Missouri at the whims of the college basketball gods.

“It was a lot tougher down the stretch than we would’ve liked,” Martin said, “but that’s part of the growth.”

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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