By: Nate Smith
On a very wintery Saturday night in Columbia, Tiger fans brave enough to trek through the snow saw a motivated Missouri team play what Head Coach Cuonzo Martin called “our best effort of the season.” Coming into the game, the odds were stacked against Missouri. The Tigers were listed as two-point underdogs and once again playing without Jeremiah Tilmon, who is out indefinitely as he deals with a stress fracture. Prior to tip-off, we also found out that Mario McKinney would be out due to a suspension. Despite all of this, Missouri was able to emerge victorious over the Florida Gators, a team that began the year with a top ten ranking in the polls.
After both teams struggled to get going in the opening minutes of the first half, the Tigers caught fire. Leading the way were Mark and Dru Smith, who combined for 36 points on the night. This week Cuonzo Martin challenged his team to attack the basket more frequently, rather than settling for jump shots. Mark Smith clearly received that message, as his aggressive first-half play helped galvanize the Tigers. At intermission, Smith and his teammates had already made it rain 8 times from beyond the arc, shooting at a 72.7% clip from three. Dru Smith said, “guys were getting good shots with their feet set, and they were knocking them down”. The junior guard credited the Tigers being deadly from deep to the team’s ability to attack the paint and make the defense collapse, which created better spacing for shooters.
In the second half, Missouri picked right back up where they left off. Within the first minute, Smith hit another three. This time it wasn’t Mark, nor Dru, but instead 6’10” forward Mitchell Smith drilling it. This prompted Florida Head Coach Mike White to immediately call a timeout. After the game, White appeared stunned, explaining to media members that he and his coaching staff felt “helpless”, saying “we couldn’t find a way to get stops.” When Florida threatened to mount a comeback, Missouri responded. Playing with increased pace and confidence, Mizzou was able to stay hot in the second half, cruising to a 91-75 victory. The Tigers ended the night shooting 63.2% from three, remarkable considering they shot 61.5% overall from the field.
Following the game, Mike White also praised Dru Smith, who had a game-high 22 points. “I thought Dru Smith was fantastic. I thought he played like an all-league guard, dominated at both ends.” Asked what it means to hear that kind of praise from an opponent, Smith was appreciative but said it wasn’t something he would focus on. “I think it would make anybody feel good. I’m just trying to be more consistent, just trying to be more aggressive offensively…working hard and continuing to try to be a leader on this team. I really appreciate (hearing) that, and appreciate (Mike White) saying that.”
Saturday night’s 16-point victory represented the first SEC win of the season for Missouri and their first win over Florida since 2015. The Tigers will be back in action on Tuesday night, as they travel to Starkville to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs, in a matchup of two 9-6 teams.