Smith and Geist lead Tigers in 75-61 victory, finishing off perfect month
COLUMBIA, Mo. — New school, better jump shot for Mark Smith. The sophomore guard scored a career-high 22 points to lead Missouri to a 75-61 victory over Morehead State on Saturday at Mizzou Arena.
Smith, the Southeastern Conference’s most accurate 3-point shooter at 46.2 percent, made 4 of 9 shots from long range against the Eagles in what has become a pretty typical showing. That’s a big improvement for a player who averaged 5.8 points and made just 23.2 percent of his 3-point attempts as a freshman at Illinois before he transferred to Missouri.
“It’s due to hard work this summer,” Smith said. “I see it paying off in games. I haven’t tweaked my shot at all. I guess I’m more focused mentally.”
Jordan Geist scored 20 points and Kevin Puryear added 12 points and eight rebounds for the Tigers (9-3). If Smith’s transformation has been a pleasant surprise for Missouri fans, it hasn’t startled his teammates.
“The way the man comes in here and puts up shots and gets in extra work, I’m not surprised at all,” Geist said.
Smith was coming off a rare bad night. He scored just five points as he was booed lustily by fans of his former team as Missouri beat Illinois on Dec. 22. He had no such trouble against Morehead State (4-9). Smith hit his first two 3-pointers to give the Tigers an 8-2 lead. The advantage grew to as many as 28 points before Missouri carried a 45-22 lead into halftime.
Led by A.J. Hicks, who scored 18 points, the Eagles worked their way back into the game in the second half. Hicks made a 3-pointer with 8:30 remaining to cut the deficit to 59-51.
“I was really proud of the fact we kept fighting and stuck together,” Morehead State coach Preston Spradlin said. “That’s the sign of a good team, when you do that. They’re trusting each other and continuing to battle. Cutting it to eight against a good Missouri team in an environment like this is a great positive for us.”
Jordan Walker scored 12 points and Lamontray Harris added 10 points and 10 rebounds for Morehead State.
The rally ended after a dead-ball technical foul was called on Hicks after a brief altercation with Geist with 5:33 left. Geist made the two free throws, Missouri was awarded the ball and Torrence Watson scored off an offensive rebound to give the Tigers a 67-53 lead.
Missouri: The big early lead and Tilmon’s foul trouble gave Martin a chance to give sophomore forward K.J. Santos extended minutes. Santos, a transfer from the University of Illinois-Chicago, had played a total of 12 minutes this season while he battled a foot injury. He logged 20 minutes, scored two points — his first of the season — and grabbed four rebounds against the Eagles.
“We tried to give him a lot of minutes to get his legs under him running the floor,” coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Defensively, we feel like he’s there. Offensively, he has to be more assertive.”
Morehead State: Hicks has been one of the nation’s better distributors. He entered the game averaging 5.5 assists, which ranked 46th nationally. Hicks finished with four assists against Missouri as he took on more of a scoring role.
MISSING IN ACTION
Missouri’s Jeremiah Tilmon, a 6-foot-10 sophomore forward, had scored in double figures six straight times entering Saturday’s game against a team whose tallest regular contributor is 6-7. Tilmon was a nonfactor against Morehead State, finishing with four points, two rebounds and four turnovers before fouling out in just 12 minutes of action.
The Eagles double-teamed Tilmon each time he touched the ball.
“We don’t have anyone who can match up with him,” Spradlin said. “Few teams will. He should be an All-SEC guy. We knew we would have to give something up if we were keying on him so heavily with our lack of size. It was important that you could take away someone like him that you don’t have the answer for, but with their balance, they made shots when we helped off on him.”
Freshman guard Christian Guess arrived at Missouri late and left early. Guess, who enrolled at MU in mid-September, has left the team and plans to transfer.
“Wonderful young man, but he’s no longer part of the program,” Martin said. “Often when kids are transferring, it’s not a good thing, but this is a mutual-respect relationship, and we’re doing everything in our power to help him. . It’s just about him finding an opportunity to play and be happy.”
Guess, a native of Cleveland, participated in only one game for the Tigers.
Missouri: The Tigers will take an extended break before opening Southeastern Conference play at home against Tennessee on Jan. 8.
Morehead State: The Eagles open Ohio Valley Conference play on Thursday at Murray State.