NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Jontay Porter wouldn’t quite say he was sad after Missouri’s loss to Kentucky.
Instead, he used the phrase “down in the dumps.”
“That was a rough one for us,” Porter said. “My dad, my brother, the whole coaching staff and all of my teammates just told me to keep shooting.”
Well, Porter came out and shot the ball a ton against Vanderbilt on Tuesday. All but one shot fell through the net in the freshman’s career night.
The 6-foot-11 Porter finished with a career-high 24 points, tied a career high with six assists and added seven rebounds. His performance helped spark Missouri – a team that after three straight losses desperately needed a win – to a 74-66 win against Vanderbilt.
Missouri (19-11, 9-8) entered the week in need of a strong finish. Missouri dropped out of a tie for third place in the Southeastern Conference standings and dropped to a No. 9 seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest NCAA Tournament bracketology.
“It was huge,” said senior Jordan Barnett, who finished with 17 points.
Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin stresses the importance of rebounding from losses.
“It’s all the same to me whether you lose by one point or 20 points,” Martin said. “They are all the same to me. It’s how we lost the game. Let’s learn from it and we rebound as a team.”
Well, something the Tigers have been working on since its game against Texas A&M is what helped them get back in the win column Tuesday.
Martin said there were times during the team's game against the Aggies in which it didn’t take advantage of the opportunities it got against the zone.
On Tuesday, with Porter flashing at the elbow, there weren’t many missed opportunities.
“Jontay did a great job of reading the defense and shooting the ball in rhythm,” Martin said.
Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said the Commodores prepared for Porter, but he was better than expected.
“We have a special ability of making the other big on the other team really good against us. Tonight was par for that course,” Drew said. “If you look at his percents, he has made some 3s, but he hasn’t shot the ball near at the level he shot tonight. You go back to Texas A&M film, and the same shots he was making in the zone he missed against Texas A&M. He just had one of those nights.”
Porter led Missouri with eight points at halftime, but it was the second half when he stepped up.
He did not miss the entire half. He finished the half with 16 points, making all seven shots, brought down six rebounds and tallied four assists.
There was no specific moment when it clicked for Porter, but Barnett said the decision to give him the ball against the zone was easy.
“Jontay was just open a lot,” Barnett said. “When he is open, we are going to throw it to him every single time. He was able to hit a ton of shots tonight and had a huge game.”
Barnett scored all 17 of his points in the second half, including the tying jump shot with 17:39 left in the second half. Missouri took the lead on a Porter 3-pointer with 16:25 left in the game and never trailed again.
Kassius Robertson added nine points and Blue Springs South graduate Kevin Puryear chipped in eight points.
After the Kentucky game, Barnett said the team needed to get back to its defensive principles. It used a strong second-half defensive performance to expand its lead.
Missouri went on a 10-0 run to take a 52-40 lead with 7:43 left. While that might just look like an offensive explosion, that run happened because of the team’s defense.
During that run, Vanderbilt went nearly 6 1/2 minutes without a point.
“We were very talkative. We were flying around, and that’s what this team needs to do to be successful,” Barnett said. “We need to fly around defensively. We took a ton of charges tonight.”
It was a night-and-day performance from the first half, when Vanderbilt got hot from deep.
The Commodores, who shot 43 percent from deep in the game, shot 53 percent from 3-point range in the first half. Eight of their 12 first-half field goals came from deep. Their two sharpshooters led the team in scoring, as well. Jeff Roberson finished 19 points, while Riley LeChance finished with 17.
Despite the shooting of Vanderbilt’s two standouts, Missouri held on.
And in a week that has been flooded with questions about Michael Porter Jr., it was the younger Porter that stepped up. After shooting 34 percent from the field in the last three games, he broke out of his slump and in turn helped Missouri break out of a slump of its own.
It remains to be seen if that will lock up an NCAA Tournament bid for the Tigers, but a win Saturday against Arkansas will surely help.
MPJ UPDATE: Michael Porter Jr. warmed up with the team for the second straight game since being cleared to practice, but he did not play.
Martin said he isn’t sure when Porter will step on the floor for the first time since the Nov. 10 season opener against Iowa State.
“As far as playing? He’s practicing. I don’t know about playing. He is looking a whole lot better, but I don’t know. Who knows? We will see,” Martin said.