Missouri uses fast start to manage 75-61 win over Morehead State

Mark Smith had a career-high 22 points for the Tigers, who led by 28 early.
Missouri guard Mark Smith boxes out CAU center Hayden Koval on a free throw during an eventual 68-55 win for the Tigers on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 at Mizzou Arena.

Mark Smith had a hard time scoring against his former team when Missouri faced Illinois last week. He scored 5 points.

It took him two minutes to surpass that against Morehead State Saturday.

Tied 2-2 1:11 in, Smith hit a 3-pointer. Then another. Then a layup. The Tigers never looked back, beating Morehead State (4-9) 75-61 at Mizzou Arena. Missouri (9-3) has wrapped up its nonconference schedule and enters SEC play with six straight wins.

“I was playing my game really, nothing special,” Smith said of the his first 8 points. “I was wide open for two 3s and just knocked them down.”

Smith went on to score a career-high 22 points for the Tigers, with 12 of those coming from beyond the 3-point line. Smith currently holds the third-highest 3-point percentage in the SEC at 46.4 percent.

“He’s been solid,” coach Cuonzo Martin said of the Illinois transfer. “I still think he’s probably 75 percent of where he could be when it’s all said and done as a basketball player. He can shoot the ball. Now the next part is driving the ball, finishing at the rim – because the way he shoots the ball, we’ve got to get him to the free throw line more.”

The Tigers managed to head to the locker room up 45-22 at half, with the score being as lopsided as 35-7 at one point. A large chunk of that was Smith – he finished the half with 14 – but the 23-point lead was a group effort.

As a team, Missouri had an efficient half, shooting 41.1 percent from beyond the arc and making all eight of its free throws. Nine of 10 MU players who saw playing time in the half scored. By comparison, the Golden Eagles shot 26.9 percent from the field and made none of their nine attempts from outside.

With near opposite performances in the half, it proved vital for Missouri, as it staved off multiple second-half runs from Morehead State, which dwindled the lead down to 8 at one point.

“We took our foot off the gas, that was the biggest thing,” Martin said. “We got comfortable settling for shots. What we said to our guys: ‘You’ll probably win the game, not sure how pretty it’ll be.’”

Senior Jordan Geist made his 20-point afternoon felt most in the second half when he doused the flames of whatever ground the Golden Eagles were trying to get back – first by taking a charge, then draining two free throws after a technical foul on Golden Eagles guard A.J. Hicks.

Martin said the senior guard’s tenacity has been infectious throughout this year’s team.

“I think our guys kind of feed off Geist’s level of toughness,” Martin said.

Another large factor in Missouri’s less-than-stellar second half performance was the loss of Jeremiah Tilmon, who fouled out with 8:58 left in the game. He contributed just 4 points and 2 rebounds in 12 minutes.

As small a night as it was for the big man, Martin referred to the center’s game as “a blip on the radar.”

“I still think it’s there,” Martin said. “You have to be locked in from start to finish every day. They were blitzing him early, kind of took him out of the game, but you’ve got to stay mentally in, so it may not be a scoring night, but maybe it’ll be a rebounding night, defensive night. Just part of it, but he’s still there.”

Illinois-Chicago transfer K.J. Santos also saw his first action in just over three weeks on Saturday, playing 20 minutes. After finding the floor for 11 minutes in a win over Oral Roberts on Dec. 7, Santos didn’t see playing time in the Tigers’ last two games. He scored his first points as a Tiger on Saturday with a spinning pass from freshman Xavier Pinson.

“Defensively we feel like [Santos is] there; now offensively, he’s got to be more assertive,” Martin said. “I thought he passed up the opportunity to score [more], but he’ll get there.”

Martin also told reporters after the game that Christian Guess is no longer a part of the program. Guess was recruited after the fall semester began to fill an open scholarship created by senior Cullen VanLeer’s medical retirement. Guess dropped a class late in the semester that made him academically ineligible for the rest of the semester. It is unclear what Martin will do with the reopened scholarship.

Missouri’s next contest will be Tuesday, Jan. 8 against No. 3 Tennessee (11-1) at Mizzou Arena, the Tigers’ SEC opener. Missouri beat the Volunteers 59-55 last season in Columbia when Tennessee was ranked No. 21 in the nation.

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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