The Maneater

Missouri falls short in SEC Tournament second rounder doubling as Porter Jr. return

The Tigers clawed back from down 12, but were upset by Georgia as Kassius Robertson missed a potential game-winning late 3.

The 2018 SEC Tournament in St. Louis.

There was no divine thunderclap, no basketball-wielding, godlike silhouette emerging from a foggy tunnel to intrepidly carry a lost team on his back to victory, no awed, hypnotic silence falling over the boisterous crowd at Scottrade Center as Michael Porter Jr. took his first steps onto the hardwood floor in St. Louis.

Instead, on just another day in the Southeastern Conference, the Georgia Bulldogs reminded Missouri that no one is safe in the swirling, unpredictable mess that is the SEC.

“This is probably the first time I’ve ever been a part of a league where it doesn’t matter what the numbers are,” head coach Cuonzo Martin said after the game.

His Missouri Tigers, Michael Porter Jr. and all, took a harshly deflating 62-60 defeat at the hands of the No. 12 seed in the second round of the SEC Tournament on Thursday afternoon. Missouri (20-12, 10-9 SEC), playing from behind for most of the day, fell brutally short of completing a 12-point comeback in the second half when graduate transfer Kassius Robertson’s open look from the corner rimmed out in the final seconds.

“We had a lot of shots that weren’t dropping,” Robertson said. “They usually do.”

The Tigers’ usual leader went 3 for 10 from the field and 1 of 4 from beyond the arc. Even so, Martin wanted the ball in his hands for the final shot with his team down 2, and the Tigers showed growth in late game execution by running a play that got Robertson wide open coming around an off-ball screen.

“Geist did a great job delivering the ball,” Martin said. “We were going with that play.”

It was a play set up by a scrappy final few minutes that finally brought Missouri back from the dead and within one point. Porter Jr. sunk a 3 as the second-half clock ticked inside one minute to slice Georgia’s lead to 61-60. The Tigers got a stop, and on the ensuing possession the freshman phenom was confident he could hit the same shot. He had tallied 12 points and eight rebounds in what was supposed to be a triumphant return, but this last shot, one of 17 he took, clanked off the front of the rim, backboard and out.

“My whole thing with coming back was being able to help where I can,” Porter Jr. said. “Do what I can to help.”

He and his fellow Tigers weren’t able to help by boxing out when Georgia went to the line with 12 seconds left, though. After the second of a pair of free throws missed, the Bulldogs corralled an offensive board in a tangled lane. Back at the line, two more foul shots didn’t drop, allowing Missouri to take a timeout with 7.1 seconds left and set up its final shot.

“It’s not so much what Mike didn’t do,” Martin said. “Georgia defended.”

The Tigers were all too aware of that, especially in the first half.

For a few minutes early on, though, things had looked better than ever for the Tigers. Porter Jr. checked in three minutes into the game and layed in a transition bucket just moments later. His brother Jontay hit a desperate deep 3. Scottrade Center’s black and gold-clad crowd was roaring. It was 10-0.

Like most leads it seems for Missouri, it was fleeting.

“When the going gets tough, some people run for the hills and some try and climb them,” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said. “[My team was] down 10-0 and decided to try and climb it.”

Georgia locked down on defense and gave the Tiger shooters no room to shoot or breathe. After the Bulldogs went the first 5:54 without a point, Missouri did the same in an eight-minute stretch highlighted by 0-for-14 field goal shooting. The Bulldogs scored 16 unanswered points, part of a longer 19-2 run that lasted 8:28 before Porter Jr. finally knocked down a 3.

“We’re trying not to give any easy layups or 3s,” Georgia senior Yante Maten said. “We were patient getting to our spots.”

Georgia had it’s statement; it just needed to outlast Missouri the rest of the way. Making it a lot easier to do so was the fact that with more than five minutes left in the half, five Tigers had two-plus fouls. Junior Kevin Puryear had been whistled for three, while Porter Jr., Geist and freshmen Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon were also showing early signs of foul trouble.

“You don’t have a real flow,” Martin said of the situation caused by tight officiating. Martin added that he wasn’t able to implement Porter Jr. easily when he kept having to make substitution adjustments for so many players in foul trouble.

The rest of a depleted roster survived panting into the halftime break, down 33-24. When it was time to reset after the break, Porter and Robertson almost wiped away the team’s struggles with two swift strokes. Back-to-back 3s tied it at 39, but it was only a brief respite from the pummeling the Tigers had taken for most of the first frame.

Eight consecutive points quickly went the Bulldogs’ way, and it was back to square one.

“They have experience; they’re battle tested; they're fighting for something,” Martin said of Georgia.

Part of Missouri’s struggle for much of the game was its inability to get the ball in Robertson’s hands, especially prior to the last few minutes. He finished with just 7 points.

And still, they were able to claw back when the deficit peaked in double digits during that second half. Even as those early fouls caught up with them — Puryear was disqualified with 11:58 to go and Tilmon with 3:12 left — the Tigers chipped away. They couldn’t quite knife it to one possession until there were four minutes to play, and once it was back to four, Porter Jr. stepped in with the 3 that set up an aching finish.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for [Porter Jr.] even trying to do what he did today,” Fox said.

He and Missouri will almost certainly get another try, but instead of tomorrow against Kentucky, it won’t be until the NCAA Tournament next week. The Tigers will return home to Columbia for Selection Sunday and await their fate as decided by the committee.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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