Senior duo hopes Missouri can turn Temple loss into fuel rather than failure

“I don’t want to go back to what the first two years of college were,” senior Kevin Puryear said after a disheartening loss to Temple.
Kevin Puryear comes short of blocking a shot during Missouri's 79-77 loss to Temple at Mizzou Arena on Nov. 27, 2018.

After Missouri’s gut-wrenching overtime loss to No. 10 Xavier three games into the 2016-17 campaign, the season could have gone two ways. An impressionable Kevin Puryear watched it roll the wrong way.

Those Tigers lost their next game. Later in the season, they would lose 13 straight on the way to an 8-24 finish that ousted coach Kim Anderson before Puryear was an upperclassman. He stuck through the turmoil, through the coaching transition, through the heartbreaking losses and growing pains Missouri suffered under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin the next season. That part was all worth it for the 20-12 finish, for Puryear’s first taste of the NCAA Tournament.

Missouri’s misdeeds of the past, as well as its subsequent maturation, were on Puryear’s mind after the 2018-19 Tigers dropped their second straight in frustrating fashion. Down 12 to Temple, they had flirted with a rally before yielding to their own shortcomings in a 79-77 loss in front of the first (sometimes) lively home crowd of the season. Missouri (3-3) is off to an underwhelming start defined by youthful mistakes, turnovers and more turnovers. It had 15 against Temple.

“I don’t want to go back to what the first two years of college were,” Puryear said.

It’s hard for the older guys to avoid the creeping sense of downward spiraling, and a loss like the one against Temple might reflect a similar point in this season. Missouri can take the rough start in one of two trajectories: the resilient route of Martin’s first season, or the faceplant.

Puryear and point guard Jordan Geist are the pair of seniors at the helm of a predominantly young Missouri team. If there’s any single takeaway from Temple from them, it’s the microcosmic nature of an up-and-down second half in which Missouri almost – almost – rallied for a desperately needed win.

The Tigers trailed by 12 points early in the half then cut the deficit to 3. Then it enlarged back to 12. Then Missouri climbed back within 2.

“We’ve got to make sure we don’t get panicked,” Geist said. “We came back multiple times last year.”

The Tigers started Tuesday with up-tempo, transition offense. After they fell into the double-digit ditch, they crept back toward a habit of obsessive 3-point shooting in an effort to ascend. Unlike in games against Kansas State and Iowa State where they withered, this time they were hot enough for it to almost work.

As a team, Missouri made 7 of 12 3-pointers in the second half. But it wasn’t a formula fit for long-term solutions, as the turnovers always seemed to snatch opportunities. During one stretch, Temple set up a full-court press and Missouri gave the ball away twice in 10 seconds on inbound plays. It was at the tail end of one of Temple’s runs to stretch the lead back to 10-plus.

“We’re getting careless,” Geist said. “We get on a run, then next thing you know something bad happens and it kind of just keeps rolling.”

Temple turned Missouri’s 15 giveaways into 20 points. During this particularly ugly sequence under the trap, Martin was talking to an assistant coach on the bench. It happened so fast that he looked up just in time for the second turnover after missing the first.

“Again, I just go back to the turnovers,” Martin said in response to one question about Missouri’s shooting. “You don’t give yourself a chance to win games.”

And still, despite 15 of those points off turnovers being surrendered in the first half, despite Missouri getting off 17 fewer shots than Temple in the opening frame, the Tigers collected themselves in a huddle, under two minutes to go, with a chance to win. They had reeled off a 9-0 run to pull within 71-69.

Temple answered with a wide open corner 3-pointer. Missouri went to Geist, who answered with a 3 of his own. The Tigers had another chance to keep it a one-score game, but Puryear and Jeremiah Tilmon got tangled up and Tilmon’s man got behind him for an open layup. 76-72. Missouri missed its next shot and sent Temple to the line to all but seal it.

“Those are basically off our breakdowns, ball screen defense,” Puryear said. “We gotta tighten up on that. I really have no excuse for that. It can't happen. As a senior guy, I had a few breakdowns as well defensively. As a senior leader, I can't do that.”

Missouri went to another senior leader in Geist to take most of the late shots. He hit a pair of 3s, but ended with four turnovers of his own. Still, the late-game experience was one Geist and Puryear said they’re glad the young players had so early in the season. It’s one they can pull from later if they’re going to make it nothing more than a growing pain.

“I think last year’s team had similar instances where we couldn't quite finish games,” Puryear said, “but as the season went on we got a lot better defensively finishing those games.”

That growth was missing in Puryear’s sophomore season. He thinks that if there’s accountability from the seniors, it will set the right example so growth isn’t missing this time around for the young ones. There was plenty of accountability from Puryear and Geist on Tuesday. What was the most important takeaway to teach young guys about late-game situations, Geist?

“I gotta be good in late game situations. I gotta be good at all times. I gotta show the young guys, you have to take care of the ball.”

Narrow the turnover count and the wins will come. It’s early in the season. It’s like Geist said; don’t panic.

“I’m gonna do everything in my power to get this thing going,” Puryear said, “and to win basketball games.”

Edited by Adam Cole |

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