COLUMBIA, Mo. – For weeks, the Missouri basketball players have been asked about their ability to finish games.
Players like Kevin Puryear have been asked throughout the season about learning to close out close contests.
With four seconds left and the Tigers holding a two-point lead Wednesday, Puryear was tasked with sealing a Missouri win. Two made free throws later, the game was just about over.
Puryear, a career 79 percent free-throw shooter, said he wasn’t thinking about those questions or the team’s late-game struggles. He was confident he would knock down both free throws.
He nailed the first one, giving Missouri a three-point lead. He received the ball back and drained the second. He turned to the student section and let out a scream. His final two points all but sealed Missouri’s 59-55 win over No. 21 Tennessee.
“Big moment for Mizzou basketball. Big moment for this team, especially for the guys that are returning,” said Puryear, a Blue Springs South High School graduate. “We took a lot of bumps our freshman and sophomore year. For us to see our hard work pay off, with the addition of all of the great players we have now, it’s a great feeling.”
The win ended a 19-game losing streak to teams in the Associated Press Top 25. The last time Missouri defeated a Top 25 team was Dec. 13, 2013, against then-No. 18 UCLA. On top of that, the win gives Missouri its first RPI top-25 win of the season, which will look good on its NCAA Tournament résumé.
Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said he doesn’t think about the win as anything else other than a win against a talented team, but he said it is meaningful for the program.
“For it to be a ranked opponent, I think it’s great for our guys and for everybody else involved,” Martin said. “For me, it’s a job. It’s what we do, and we put ourselves in positions to win games. Now we have to win the next one.”
The Tigers (13-5, 3-2) earned the win despite having one of their worst shooting performance of the season from deep.
Missouri, which entered the game leading the Southeastern Conference as the league leader in both 3-point field goals made and 3-point percentage, shot just 4 of 18 from deep.
How did Missouri win despite making its least amount of 3s against a Division I team this year? Senior guard Kassius Robertson was adamant about his answer.
“We play defense, man. We are tough,” Robertson said. “We are a good defensive team. Coach is always beating us down for playing defense and stuff, especially me. We play defense.”
Missouri held Tennessee 23 points under its season average. And though Missouri leads the SEC in 3-point percentage, Tennessee (12-5, 3-3) entered the game second. The Tigers held the Vols to 23 percent from deep and held Tennessee guards Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden to a combined 1 for 13 from the field.
“Defensively, we locked them down,” Robertson said. “We struggled from 3, but we made them struggle from 3, too. That was huge. That was what pretty much won us the game.”
Days after showing his team film of its four close losses and stressing defense, his team had one of its best defensive performances. Tennessee’s Grant Williams led the Vols in scoring with 15 points.
“Just be locked in,” Martin said he wanted from his player’s on the defensive end. “The hard part is that something has to give. You have to blitz (Williams) hard, force him to make another play and you can’t allow those perimeter guys to get wide-open looks. That’s what happens when you play against a good team. Something has to give.”
Missouri had just two players score in double figures. Puryear finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, his first double-double of the season. Jontay Porter also finished with 10 points and seven rebounds.
Both played a big role in Missouri’s late first-half run.
The Tigers came out of the gates ice-cold from the field. Missouri didn’t make its first field goal until Robertson hit a jumper with 15:22 left in the first half. By then, the Tigers were down just 7-3. The Vols quickly expanded on that lead.
A Lamonte Turner 3-pointer gave Tennessee a 17-9 lead with 12:17 left in the first half. That would end up being Tennessee's largest lead of the game.
Missouri answered with a 6-0 run. Porter scored three of the team’s next six points, as the Tigers cut the Tennessee lead to two. Puryear tied the game on a layup with 5:33 left in the half.
Missouri and Tennessee continued to trade baskets to end the first half, before a Jeremiah Tilmon jumpshot tied the game before the half.
Through the first half, the Tigers showed no resemblance of the SEC’s top shooting team. For the first time this season, the Tigers went a half without a 3-point field goal. In fact, Missouri began the game 0 for 10 from deep until a Jordan Barnett 3-pointer with 16:11 left in the game went down.
Barnett’s shot jumped Missouri to a 34-27 lead with 16:11 left in the game. From then on, it was a game of momentum.
The Vols went on a 9-2 run, tying the game at 36 with 13:06 to play. Led by Jordan Geist, the Tigers answered the Vols with another run of their own.
Geist knocked down a 3-pointer on a pass from Porter. Geist followed that with a pass to Barnett for a dunk and finished a layup to give Missouri a 47-41 lead.
Tennessee did not go away and, on the back of a 9-0 run, cut Missouri’s lead to 53-52 with 2:13 left.
It became evident that Missouri would need to find a way to finish the game. It did just that with free throws.
Geist made two in the final minute, and Puryear made four in the final two minutes, but none were bigger than his two with four seconds left.
Those shots gave Missouri it’s best win of the season and confidence when it comes to closing out games against quality opponents.
“That was huge,” Robertson said. “We didn’t shoot it extremely well, but we won that game on the defensive end and sealed it with some good free throws.”