The Maneater

Puryear’s double-double off the bench makes for happy Rocky Top reunion for Martin

Mizzou was finally able to withstand a late run in its first win against a ranked opponent since 2013.

Kevin Puryear, 24, attempts a jump shot against Miami of Ohio in 2017. Maneater File Photo

Cuonzo Martin’s reunion with his former employer was rocky at times, but his Tigers came out on top.

Missouri (13-5, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) survived a late push from Tennessee (12-5, 3-3 SEC) and put to rest its late-game woes — despite going the last 6:43 without a field goal — in a 59-55 upset of the No. 21 Volunteers on Wednesday night at Mizzou Arena. It was Missouri’s first win against a ranked opponent since 2013, a year when Martin was the head coach at Tennessee.

“The most important thing is to protect your home court,” Martin said. “Two great teams, very similar in a lot of ways. We did enough to win the game. It was a fun game to be a part of.”

The Tigers’ blue-collar win was led by a blue-collar performance, as junior Kevin Puryear finished a 12-point, 10-rebound double-double with a pair of decisive foul shots to push the lead to four in the final seconds. He was pulled aside by his head coach after the horn.

“I said, ‘Kevin, you jumped at that shot,’” Martin said of the final, generally overlooked play with a laugh. “What if he had made it and you had fouled him?”

Martin, never one to go easy on his veteran forward, credited Puryear on his performance after a recent transition to routinely coming off the bench.

“[Puryear] is a starter,” Martin said. “I don't want him to be happy about coming off the bench.”

But with him doing just that in another SEC barn burner Wednesday night, Missouri had to get past another slow start just to keep things interesting against the Volunteers.

All things considered, Mizzou’s slow-at-first opening stanza turned out to be encouraging if nothing else. The Tigers started the contest in 10-3 and 17-9 holes and had to chip their way back against a ranked team without the benefit of a 3-pointer. They were helped by the Volunteers’ own shooting woes; while Mizzou was off to an 0-for-7 start from deep, Tennessee hit its first three triples, then ended the half missing its last nine.

“We didn’t shoot it extremely well like some other nights, but we won that game on the defensive end of the floor,” graduate transfer Kassius Robertson said. “We made them struggle from 3.”

They were also helped by Puryear, who provided a much-needed, scrappy lift in the paint. He posted six points and eight rebounds before the intermission, even finishing on a nifty spin move to top off a 12-4 run and bring Missouri even for the first time at 21. On what he did to fuel Missouri, Puryear credited “ball hunting,” he said. “I won the ball. Doing everything I could on the defensive boards.”

When the dust cleared on a whirlwind first half that included six-plus minutes without a dead ball at one point, Mizzou Arena was left with nothing but a 27-27 tie and collective anxiety at the thought of another impending close finish.

“I hate to be tested like that all the time because it does something to my heart,” Martin said.

Missouri returned from the intermission trying to ease those nerves, scoring the first seven of the half while not allowing a Tennessee bucket for over four minutes. After a combined 18 straight missed 3s between the teams that spanned nearly 20 minutes, senior Jordan Barnett capped the surge with Mizzou’s first taste of long-range nylon.

“[Barnett] has a very short memory; if he misses it, he’s forgotten about it before it hits the rim,” Volunteers head coach Rick Barnes said. Barnett played under Barnes at Texas three years ago before transferring to Mizzou. “I wish we had him at Tennessee.”

The Volunteers still evened things out, but leading 41-40, were answered by another Missouri burst. Junior Jordan Geist buried a go-ahead 3-pointer, Barnett finished an inbound play with a dunk and freshman Jontay Porter and Barnett drained consecutive 3s to round out a 13-2 run and give Mizzou a 53-43 advantage with seven minutes left.

It was an advantage fated, like most for this Missouri team, to disappear.

While Tennessee was on a 9-0 push, Mizzou proceeded to go 4:52 without a point. Puryear free throws extended the lead to a precious three points before the Volunteers again cut it to one and got it back with a minute to go. They came up empty, and after a foul late in Missouri’s shot clock turned it off with 25.7 seconds left, Tennessee had to put the Tigers at the line.

Following a timeout and two near turnovers for the Tigers, Geist hit a pair to make it 57-54. Geist, criticized recently for struggling to make important plays in critical situations, followed with the heads-up play of the night, an intentional foul with 4.4 seconds left.

“[Geist] plays like that from start to finish,” Robertson said. “I’m really, really happy that he’s on my team.”

The Vols could only convert on one of the ensuing two free throws, and Puryear was then fittingly the one to walk to the other end with a chance to seal it.

He did.

“At that point, it’s just being poised enough to make those free throws,” Puryear said. “I was pretty confident I was gonna sink them.”

“[Puryear] was a guy we were really concerned about,” Barnes said. “Our exact words were, whether he’s starting or not, he’s a starter and a key player. We got one thing right tonight anyway.”

Mizzou travels to College Station on Saturday for a road showdown against the Texas A&M Aggies, set to be televised on ESPN2 at 3 p.m. CT.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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