Spoke Too Soon: Once 10th-ranked Tigers become first-round outs in NCAA Tournament

Missouri guard Mark Smith, left, fights for a loose ball with Oklahoma guard Elijah Harkless, right, during a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Joel Lorenzi

INDIANAPOLIS — The “M-I-Z” “Z-O-U” chants were scarce.

What was once a radiant energy coming from Missouri fans at Lucas Oil Stadium slowly vanished by the end . Just like the Tigers.

In its first tournament appearance since 2018, MU turned what started as a confident showing into Oklahoma’s game. The Tigers lead guards didn’t lead through the majority of the matchup. And even as they managed to diminish the Sooners’ late eight-point lead in a matter of possessions, they couldn’t muster the momentum to win, falling to Oklahoma 72-68 in an NCAA Tournament East Region round of 64 game.

Though Oklahoma missed starting guard De’Vion Harmon, MU and OU played it close for the better part of 40 minutes.

The Tigers stormed out to a 14-7 lead. Oklahoma took things easy when defending senior center Jeremiah Tilmon, who managed a couple quick baskets early. MU got its small crowd of followers going after pushing the pace and getting a couple of 3s from senior Mark Smith. But Smith’s fellow starting guards who weren’t yet ready to play.

Coach Cuonzo Martin’s options ran thin. Senior Dru Smith, MU’s lone All-Southeastern Conference first-team selection, hardly looked like the critically acclaimed player who had gotten his team so far. His 1-of-6 shooting kept the Tigers from expanding their once-lush lead.

It didn’t help that his All-SEC caliber defense wasn’t enough to slow Oklahoma guard Austin Reaves, who had his way without stepping outside of himself for a nine-point first half.

On the other side of the backcourt was junior guard Xavier Pinson, who struggled more than any other Tiger.

The 6-foot-2 guard continuously chucked up bad shots. Following his layup in the opening minutes of the game, he never found the bottom of the net again.

It became inevitable that the Sooners would catch Missouri. Coach Lon Kruger took notes as Oklahoma senior Brady Manek tried as hard as possible to deny Tilmon down low.

When Manek wasn’t enough, Kruger called in the troops, defending Tilmon as many teams have during the latter half of the season. MU seemed determined to feed the man in the middle entering the game, and the team appeared distraught when the tables turned.

Missouri typically is good for a couple of stagnant stretches of offense per game, yet even when it saw a stretch of seven consecutive missed field goals, it didn’t quite lose control. That lasted until halftime.

The Sooners came out of the break rejuvenated, going on a 12-2 run leading up to the first timeout of the half. The Tigers couldn’t buy a basket, going 0 for 8 during that stretch. Oklahoma seemed to take control of the contest.

Reaves became too tall a task for Dru Smith in the pick-and-roll, as he single-handedly picked apart the Tigers’ defense. It seemed every time he turned the corner, it meant trouble. He led the Sooners with 23 points, including a 14-point second half that was mostly spent at the charity stripe.

The Tigers clawed back to knot things at 55 with 5:52 remaining when Martin cut Pinson’s night short. He’d shot 1-of-7 to that point. By the final stretch, he found himself on the bench wearing warmup attire. The decision was made: Pinson’s night was over while Missouri’s season remained in the balance.

Martin instead went forward with graduate transfer Drew Buggs to run the offense alongside Dru Smith. Buggs wound up playing 22 minutes — four more than Pinson — an undoubtedly debatable decision that stood out among Martin’s many choices throughout the season.

“I just thought (Buggs) did a good job executing, getting us into what we were trying to do,” Martin said. “But also I thought he did a really good job defending, embracing that challenge. He really stepped up. He did a great job in my opinion.”

When Missouri brought things as close as it could, it rolled over. The Tigers shot a pair of air balls when they needed offense the most. Pinson, one of the Tigers’ leading 3-point shooters, watched from the sideline.

Manek and a string of Reaves free throws put what appeared to be the final touches on an OU win. Fans clad in gold and black moved toward the exit one by one.

But as one Tiger guard’s night was decided, another didn’t want to let the season go so easily.

Dru Smith tucked his cape into his shorts before draining off-balance, deep desperation 3s on back-to-back possessions. The senior guard made it a three-point game. But the Tigers fumbled the one possession that mattered most.

As the clock dwindled, Missouri couldn’t get up a shot. Pinson watched from the bench as Buggs eventually drew a foul. After draining his first free throw, he intentionally missed the second, hitting the front rim for a chance to retain possession and possibly win the game. But not one MU jersey came close to the ball.

As Oklahoma’s Jalen Hill drained the game-clinching pair of free throws, MU’s hopes to continue its season evaporated.

The once top-ten Tigers solidified a new identity: The team whose fortune was too soon to tell midway through the season.

“When (Tilmon) went down I think that was tough for us, obviously with the death of his grandmother” Martin said when asked where he felt his season changed direction. “So now, you have to make adjustments. We were just kinda fighting to get back in it and just never got over the hump on a consistent basis.”