NASHVILLE, Tenn. – With Thursday’s game a lost cause, Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin pulled seniors Kevin Puryear and Jordan Geist out for the final time.
Puryear has been trying to put off thinking about his final game for the last year, but when he came out, the emotions hit him.
The former Blue Springs South High School star sat on the bench, put a towel over his head and let the tears out. With an 81-71 loss to Auburn in the second round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, his college career was over.
Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said the team would not accept an invitation to the College Basketball Invitational, a postseason tournament that invites teams not involved in the NCAA Tournament or NIT.
“I was overwhelmed with emotions,” Puryear said. “Walking off the court for the last time and you know it is the last time I will wear a Mizzou uniform, the tears definitely built up. It was an emotional day.”
Geist said the emotions of his career ending haven’t hit him yet.
“I’m pretty disappointed,” Geist said. “I really thought we could’ve got all five of these.”
If Missouri (15-17) was going to run the table and win the SEC Tournament, it was going to take an incredible effort from the senior guard. He did just about all he could.
Geist finished with a game-high 25 points on Thursday, pushing his SEC Tournament total to 55 points. He shot 55 percent from the field over two games at the tournament.
But as Martin has said all year, the importance of Geist and Puryear extends further than the court.
“I put a lot of pressure on those guys because we needed them in order for our team to be successful,” Martin said. “I thought they did a great job of not giving up, continuing to fight. It gave the young guys hope from the standpoint of seeing older guys that have been through some tough times, but they never gave in.”
If there’s any consolation to having your career end, it’s the fact that Puryear and Geist helped Missouri put together a much better performance than the first time it played Auburn this season – a 34-point loss.
“The first time we didn’t have a lot of fight in the second half. This time we had an answer for every run they had,” said Puryear, who tallied five points, three rebounds and an assist in his final college game.
“I thought the effort and fight was there. There were some plays down the stretch we just didn’t make, but I think this team gave 100 percent effort.”
The first half looked eerily similar to the first meeting Jan. 30. In the first matchup, Missouri trailed by three points at halftime against an Auburn team that struggled to shoot. On Thursday, nearly the same was true.
Missouri trailed by just two points at halftime. Turnovers killed any chance the Tigers had of taking a lead into the break. Missouri, which finished with 14 turnovers, had 10 in the first half. Freshman guard Xavier Pinson had six of his eight turnovers in the first half.
The second half couldn’t have been more different, though. Missouri turned the ball over just four times, but Auburn got hot from deep.
Led by guard Bryce Brown, who scored all 17 of his points in the second half, Auburn shot 52 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
Unlike the first matchup, Auburn (23-9) wasn’t able to put Missouri away so easily.
Auburn’s first double-digit lead was 10 points with 14:44 left.
Immediately, Missouri answered with an 8-0 run that cut Auburn’s lead to just two with 13:13 remaining.
Three times in the second half, Auburn built a nine- or 10-point lead just to have Missouri cut it back to a two-possession game minutes later.
That alone shows the growth of the team, Geist said.
“It’s the growth and confidence,” Geist said. “When you go into a game and know that you can play with a team, your confidence elevates a little bit.”
But Missouri couldn’t get over the hump. While Missouri answered each of Auburn’s runs, Auburn had an answer as well.
“They got more offensive rebounds and it kind of elevated them,” Geist said.
To be clear, Auburn pulled down just one more offensive rebound, but on many occasions those rebounds turned into 3-pointers.
After Missouri tied the game at 52 with 11:22 left, Auburn went on a 9-0 run. That spree was capped by a Brown 3-pointer that came after two offensive rebounds.
Missouri freshman Torrence Watson tied his career-high with another 20-point performance, his second time reaching 20 in the last six games. Only Watson and Geist scored in double figures for MU.
Auburn, which entered the season as one of the frontrunners to win the league, had four players finish in double figures. Along with Brown, Chuma Okeke scored 12 points while Malik Dunbar and Horace Spencer recorded 11 each.
Missouri just didn’t have enough to finish its comeback against Auburn.
“They have every part – have nine, 10 guys that are talented enough,” Martin said of Auburn. “If you don't have nine, 10 guys to go toe-to-toe with them, something is going to give there at some point. That's what happened.”
For the second year in a row, Missouri’s season ended at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Last year it was the NCAA Tournament, and the excitement going into this year was set on the back of Jontay Porter’s return paired with Jeremiah Tilmon and a few upperclassmen.
It’s still unknown whether Porter, who tore his ACL and MCL before the season, will return next year.
“The most important thing is he makes the decision based on what's best for him,” Martin said on Porter. “He'll do the right thing.”
Regardless, the future appears bright for Missouri going forward. Watson, who turned into one of Missouri’s best scorers down the stretch, leads a talented freshman class of Pinson and Javon Pickett. Along with that pair, Missouri returns Mark Smith, Tilmon and will get Dru Smith eligible, among others.
"They might be young but they have a lot of fight in them," Geist said. "For all of the Mizzou fans they should be pretty excited going forward. Next year is going to be a special run for them, I could feel it already."