Missouri’s season ends in 67-54 loss in the first round of NCAA Tournament

A 22-point halftime deficit proved to be too much for the Tigers to overcome in Nashville.
An aerial view of the 2018 NCAA Tournament Nashville regional.

The rollercoaster that has been Missouri’s 2017-18 season came to an end late Friday night, as the Tigers fell to the Florida State Seminoles 67-54 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.

Graduate transfer Kassius Robertson finished with 19 points to lead the Tigers offensively in his final college game. Freshman phenom Michael Porter Jr., whom many believe was also playing his last game as a Missouri Tiger, played 28 minutes and finished with 16 points. He walked the handshake line after the game with tears in his eyes.

In many ways, the first half mirrored last Thursday’s loss to Georgia in the SEC Tournament. The Tigers started hot, getting a corner 3 from Robertson and another contested 3 from junior guard Jordan Geist. Once Porter Jr. came into the game, though, the team completely lost its flow on offense. The Tigers scored just 4 points over a 6:46 stretch, and the Seminoles jumped out to a 10-point lead.

Freshman big man Jeremiah Tilmon said the team’s poor performance on offense in the first half was facilitated by sluggish defense.

“We’re not an offensive team,” Tilmon said. “We play defense first to score and we weren’t doing that at all.”

Things went from bad to worse in the first half for the Tigers. They shot 5 of 23, good for 22 percent from the field, and 7 of 13 from the free throw line. They turned the ball over 10 times. Freshman Jontay Porter, arguably the team’s best player over the last four weeks, had three fouls and no points on 0 of 3 shooting and an 0-for-2 mark from the free-throw line. His brother, Michael, airballed twice. On defense, the Tigers had allowed 12 fast break points and watched as the Seminoles shot 53 percent from the field and 5-for-8 from 3.

Tilmon, who played through foul trouble through much of the first half, said that Missouri’s slow starts grew to be inexplicable.

“I don’t know why we kept doing it, we just started out slow and it took us being down to come out there and try and cut people’s head off on offense and defense,” Tilmon said.

By the end of the first half, the Tigers trailed 42-20 and every Tiger was hanging his head. With just seven scholarship players available due to senior Jordan Barnett’s suspension for a DWI arrest early last Saturday morning, it looked like a sure thing that Missouri would get run out of Bridgestone Arena.

In the locker room at halftime, Martin wrote one word on the team’s whiteboard: fight. Porter said the team took its coach’s message to heart.

“I think resiliency would be the keyword if you had to explain this team,” Porter said. “On a smaller scale, just games like this when you’re down 20 and not letting it trickle up and up … We were super resilient, and I think that starts with coach Martin and trickles down to us.”

Missouri was a different team in the second half. It started with Robertson, who came to life and hit four 3s in the first 10 minutes. Missouri’s improved effort on the defensive side became apparent as well, as the team became more aggressive in getting around the Seminoles off-ball screens, contested more shots and even forced two shot clock violations. After seeming dead in the water, the Tigers got the Seminoles’ lead down to six with 9:53 remaining.

Depth is everything in March, though, and it proved to be Missouri’s downfall. First, Porter picked up his fourth foul, pushing a screener on the defensive end and forcing him out of the game momentarily. Porter Jr. followed with a foul of his own on a 3-point shot that saved the Seminoles with the shot clock winding down.

A few costly Missouri turnovers later, the Seminoles had rattled off a 15-0 run, swelling their lead to 21. While Missouri was continued to battle, the writing was on the wall: The Tigers were done.

Tilmon said the team was simply exhausted at the end of its run to make the game competitive again.

“We all were out there just going our hardest, trying our best to get the score to where we wanted it to be,” Tilmon said. “By the time that happened, all of us were dead tired. When you’re tired, you can’t get the same production as you get normally.”

Despite the exhaustion, Martin said he was proud of the way his team responded.

“At the end of the game, I thought it was a better effort,” Martin said. “I think just the next step for our program is guys playing extremely hard all the time. That comes with more bodies and more guys at positions, so we’ll get there.”

The next step for Missouri is finding out whether the Porter brothers stay at school or go to the NBA. Martin said after the game that he fully supports whatever decision they make and would advise Porter Jr. to go to the NBA if he is indeed a top pick, where he’s been projected all year long despite playing in just three games.

Jontay, on the other hand, said he’s not sure about what his future holds.

“Spring break is coming up, so I’ll probably relax at the beach a little bit,” Porter said. “After that, I don’t know. I’ll probably sit down with my parents and see what my options are.”

Martin said overall he’s happy with strides his program made this season and hinted at greater things to come.

“One day we’ll be the last team standing,” he said.

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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