Five things we learned in No. 20 Mizzou basketball's 93-78 victory at South Carolina
Missouri men's basketball needed a game where things ended smoothly.
Too many times over the past month, blown leads caused the Tigers stress and unnecessary damage.
None of that existed Saturday in Columbia, South Carolina, as No. 20 Missouri cruised to victory and ended its three-game losing streak.
The Tigers bested South Carolina 93-78 at Colonial Life Arena, improving to 14-6 overall and 7-6 in the Southeastern Conference. The Gamecocks fall to 5-11 overall and 3-9 in the league standings after losing their fifth straight game.
Missouri's 93 points were its most in regulation this season, topping an 89-point effort against TCU in late January and 91 points against Oral Roberts in the season opener.
The win is No. 250 of Cuonzo Martin’s 13-year head coaching career, with 64 coming at Missouri.
Jeremiah Tilmon returned to the court after two games away from the Tigers for personal reasons to tie for the team lead in scoring off the bench. He finished with 17 points while shooting 5-for-5 from the field and 7-for-7 from the free-throw line.
Dru Smith also posted 17 points for Missouri, with Xavier Pinson following with 16. Mark Smith added 13 points and Kobe Brown had 12.
South Carolina's AJ Lawson led all scorers with 22 points.
Missouri has only one road game remaining this season and plays its next two at home, starting with a rematch against Mississippi on Tuesday.
Here are five things we learned in Missouri's victory over South Carolina:
1. Tigers utilize balanced offensive attack
Three weeks ago against TCU, Pinson scored 36 points and Tilmon finished with 33.
Martin knew he couldn't depend on that kind of scoring every game.
When five players scored between a dozen and 17 points for Missouri on Saturday, his vision for the Tigers' offense was more on display.
"I'll take that. Now, there might be nights guys do that because last year, several games, Dru Smith and X were scoring the ball. I have no problem with that," Martin said. "But I think our balance comes on both sides of the basketball. When we're defending and playing hard, then we can have balance."
Another problem for Missouri in the past has been secondary scoring. That wasn't a problem against South Carolina as the Tigers had 35 points off the bench. That total is helped with Tilmon away from his usual starting role.
However, the contributions of Parker Braun, Torrence Watson and Javon Pickett are starting to be more consistent.
2. Missouri avoided another collapse
Midway through the second half, Missouri began a five-minute stretch where it made 8 of 9 field goals to consistently add to its score and prevent giving up a big lead.
Part of that strategy was Martin taking a timeout two minutes into the second half as the Gamecocks started to make a run. South Carolina cut the lead at one point to as low as seven, but Missouri had an answer at every turn.
"In the timeout, we all came together," Mark Smith said. "We said, 'We've got to nip this in the bud right now. We got to get it back rolling.' And I think that's exactly what we did. Dru got a steal and an and-one. And then, we started rolling from there."
Looking at other projected NCAA Tournament teams, seven teams that are ranked ahead of Tigers in the NET (Missouri is No. 43) have experienced a losing streak of three games or longer this season.
Of the 2019 Final Four teams, three had a losing streak of at least three games.
3. Tilmon shows no rust in return
Before Tilmon's leave of absence from the program, he hadn't scored in double figures in his past three games.
Martin didn't start the 6-foot-10 standout in his first game in 10 days, but turned to him often off the bench.
In addition to his 17 points and not missing a shot or free throw, Tilmon had one turnover and no fouls in 21 minutes.
Seven free throws in one game ties Tilmon's career record at Missouri. It's the first time he's made seven without a miss.
It's evident how much the East St. Louis native means to the Tigers. Having him back in the locker room appeared to give Missouri an emotional and physical boost.
"It made a huge impact in both areas," Dru Smith said. "We all know what (Tilmon) can do on the floor. Just having him out there, just having that presence in the post gets the other guys open looks. ... Just having his presence out there on the floor is something that you can't really replace, so it was definitely nice to have him back and obviously we're all happy and energy is lifted a little bit just to get him back."
Tilmon paid tribute to his late grandmother on the back of both of his shoes.
4. Tigers hold players-only meeting
No one was happy about the team's recent three-game losing streak.
Instead of holding those feelings back, the MU roster held a meeting to vent those frustrations, and more importantly, discuss how to move forward with better results.
"You just hope that you get everything out there," Dru Smith said of the meeting. "You get everything off your chest, anything that's been bugging anyone, anything that anyone has to say that they think can help, anything that's going to help us.
"We want to get it out in the air, just try to understand where we're struggling and what we need to get better at.
"And then figure out ways that we as a team, with our coaches, can fix that."
5. It was a must-win for morale
Losing four straight contests at this juncture of the season would have not only sent Missouri crashing out of the national rankings two weeks after securing the No. 10 spot, but into an unneeded frenzy.
The Tigers have relatively secure NCAA Tournament hopes, with many national projections still listing them as near-locks to make the 68-team field.
But another defeat would have carried harsh ramifications in terms of national and conference-wide significance.
That didn't happen, and Missouri is back in the win column.
The Tigers' focus now solely shifts to avenging its previous loss to Ole Miss, the first defeat of their recent tailspin.
Contact Eric Blum at email@example.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.
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