COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) – Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin is a connoisseur of defense, and he found a lot to love in Saturday’s 69-50 victory over Alabama. The Tigers held the Southeastern Conference’s top-scoring team 33 points below its season average.
The Crimson Tide, who average 11 made 3-pointers, made just 4 of 25 from long range against Missouri’s suffocating perimeter defense.
“You have to give up something against a team like this, because they can score the ball,” Martin said. “One thing we were willing to give up against these guys – now that the game is over and hopefully we don’t have to see them again – is the dive from the big. You’ll give that up some so the shooters don’t get off.”
Dru Smith led Missouri (15-16, 7-11) with 17 points and eight assists. Mark Smith scored 13 points, and Mitchell Smith added 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting.
Kira Lewis Jr. scored 18 points but committed seven turnovers for Alabama (16-15, 8-10). Jaden Shackelford scored 13, and Galin Smith took advantage of Missouri’s fixation on the 3-point line by scoring 10 points inside.
“Their game plan was really good, and it caused us fits,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “That was our worst offensive performance by far of the year. They kind of bottled up Kira’s penetration and took away our 3-point shooting.”
The game was an ugly but close affair until midway through the second half. Lewis hit two free throws to give the Crimson Tide a 37-34 lead with 10:09 left. Missouri responded with a 10-0 run. They capped the run when Mitchell Smith saved a loose ball from going out of bounds and passed ahead to Javon Pickett, who scored and drew a foul.
The Tigers continued to pour it on in their preferred manner, with point guard penetration and free throws. Dru Smith made 9 of 10 free throws, and Xavier Pinson hit 7 of 10. Missouri extended possessions by grabbing 15 offensive rebounds.
On the other end, Alabama couldn’t put together its own scoring run.
“Anybody would be frustrated if you’re not getting what you’re used to,” Dru Smith said of the Crimson Tide. “I think there was definitely some frustration, but they kept playing hard.”
Missouri: The Tigers said goodbye to their lone senior, Reed Nikko. The 6-foot-10 center was a role player for most of his career but became a major contributor in the second half of his senior season, scoring in double figures four times in SEC play.
“He has a humble soul and a huge heart and just wants to live a peaceful life,” Martin said of Nikko. “He’s one of those guys that you migrate to him because you know his word his genuine. He’s a sincere man. He gives sound counsel. Young guys look up to him. It’s all the things you would want in a son.”
With Tilmon doing well inside, Nikko played just 16 minutes against Alabama and finished with three points and three rebounds. Martin inserted him and removed him in the final minutes so he could get one last ovation.
“I tried to soak it all in,” Nikko said. “I knew it was the last time I would play on the court. To get that reception from the fans one last time meant the world to me.”
Alabama: The Crimson Tide lost for the fourth time in their last six games. Hopes for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament are long gone. Alabama, which entered Saturday ranked 50th in the NCAA’s NET power rankings, could still be in the mix for the NIT.
PETTY STRUGGLES IN RETURN
John Petty Jr. returned for Alabama after missing the last two games with an elbow injury. Petty, who entered the game averaging 15 points, scored just one point in 34 minutes, going 0 for 5 from the field and committing four turnovers.
“We were hoping he’d be a lot closer to 100%,” Oats said. “You could tell he just wasn’t his normal self.”
TILMON BREAKS OUT
It’s been a frustrating junior season for Missouri forward Jeremiah Tilmon, who has missed 14 games with a stress fracture in his foot and hasn’t matched last season’s production when he is on the floor. Against Alabama, he played with energy and finished with eight points and nine rebounds.
“He’s playing hard and he’s making the extra effort,” Martin said. “Oftentimes you have in your mind how you would like to play, what it should look like, but if he’s defending, he’s rebounding, he’s playing hard, his presence on the offensive glass – even though he might not get the point, he keeps the ball alive – that puts so much pressure on the other team’s defense because he is physical.”
Missouri: The Tigers’ seed and opening opponent in this week’s SEC tournament depended on the outcome of games later Saturday. They could be seeded 10th or 11th.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide have a first-round bye in the SEC tournament and will begin play Thursday as either the ninth or 10th seed.