Missouri guard Xavier Pinson insisted he wasn’t in a two-game slump even though his production on the floor had dipped to unusually low levels heading into Saturday night’s showdown in Knoxville, Tennessee.
It wasn’t a slump, Pinson reasoned on Friday, because the Tigers had won both games.
On Saturday, Pinson busted out of whatever he wants to call the two-game stretch — and then some.
The junior point guard scored 19 of his season-high 27 points in the first half as the No. 19 Tigers upset No. 6 Tennessee 73-64 at Thompson-Boling Arena in a game Mizzou never trailed against the Southeastern Conference preseason favorite. The victory avenged Mizzou’s 20-point loss to the Volunteers on Dec. 30 and was the Tigers’ first win in Knoxville since 1972.
Pinson credited a film session he had this week with Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin, during which Martin reminded his junior point guard he’s at his best when he’s in attack mode.
“Coach told me everything I needed to hear,” Pinson said, “not everything I wanted to hear.”
With Pinson in control — and Dru Smith adding 18 points from the perimeter — the Tigers took down a top 10 team on the road for the first time in nearly a decade. The sixth-ranked Vols are the highest-ranked team Mizzou has beaten on the road since a 2012 victory at No. 3 Baylor. Already with three SEC road wins, Mizzou improved to 10-2 and 4-2 in conference play and moved ahead of Tennessee (10-3, 4-3) in the SEC standings and just behind first-place Alabama in conference winning percentage.
Martin, after beating the Vols in Knoxville for the first time since he was their head coach from 2011-14, let out a primal scream as he walked off the court and into the bowels of the arena, as captured by Mizzou’s team videographer then posted on social media.
Martin doesn’t usually campaign for poll positions, but he stated his case for a jump in the rankings after the victory.
“When we take care of the basketball, we make consistent 3s and we defend how we normally defend,” Martin said, “I like our a chances against anybody.”
“Like I said to our guys,” he added, “a top-10 team won the game today. I truly feel that.”
After matching nine points with nine turnovers in Mizzou’s last two games, wins over Texas A&M and South Carolina, Pinson attacked the Volunteers from the opening tip and recaptured his shooting touch from beyond the arc. Pinson connected on all three of his 3-pointers, was 4 of 4 from the foul line and became the first player to score 20 points or more against the Volunteers this season.
“He scored the ball, but he was downhill,” Martin said. “X is effective when he's going north and south and attacking. When he he’s east and west and moving from side to side he’s not assertive and not aggressive.”
That’s not all Pinson did Saturday. Martin credited his on-ball defense for setting an early tone.
“I don't think in the past he's been as committed defensively,” Martin said. “I thought he took a tremendous amount of pride embracing the challenge defensively.”
“Pinson was terrific,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “He made some great rim shots. I love guys that are big-time layup makers. I think that’s an art and talent. He got in there and he’s very slippery and quick. He got confident and felt like he could go wherever he wanted to go whenever he wanted to do it.”
The Tigers opened with a blistering start, much better than their last outing against Tennessee, when the Vols raced to a 23-6 lead through the first nine minutes. On Saturday, UT committed five turnovers before the first media timeout, then doubled that total by the second timeout. The Tigers took advantage of the extra possessions with a lethal half from behind the 3-point arc.
Mizzou’s relentless half-court defense looked nothing like the Tigers’ effort in the first meeting against Tennessee.
“It was just practice for them (in the first meeting),” Martin said. “Our guys saw that. They understood that. We set a tone getting into passing lanes and being aggressive.”
“We didn't want to come out slow or stagnant or anything,” said Smith, who had three of MU’s 10 steals. “They jumped out on us quick at home. We knew we wanted to pick up that defensive pressure, not let the ball swing easily and we were able to get a couple turnovers, a couple live-all turnovers there at the beginning and get out and run.”
Pinson, after going without a field goal in 19 minutes Tuesday against South Carolina, exploded for 19 first-half points, including 3 of 3 from behind the arc. When Pinson headed to the bench late in the half with his second foul, Smith took his turn from deep, connecting on two more 3s in the final three minutes to keep the Tigers in front.
Mizzou didn’t let up in the second half. Just as the Vols got back within four, the Tigers ripped off a 9-2 run, getting a corner 3-pointer from Kobe Brown to beat the shot clock buzzer, then another 3-pointer from Javon Pickett on the wing to push MU ahead by 11.
Mizzou went cold for a four-minute stretch, missing eight straight shots, but then finished strong with three straight baskets to take a 64-50 lead on a Smith jumper with five minutes left, enough of a cushion for the Tigers to cruise to their biggest road win since joining the SEC.
TILMON CONTROLS PAINT
Jeremiah Tilmon’s string of prolific stats stopped Saturday, but he was effective on both ends of the court, especially the way he manhandled Tennessee center and leading scorer John Fulkerson in the paint. Tilmon finished with nine points, five rebounds and two blocks in 30 minutes. Fulkerson, a preseason first-team All-SEC selection, was barely visible, giving the Vols seven points and five turnovers in 26 minutes.
“I just simply said to Jeremiah, 'I want you to think about something … Fulkerson is a good player. He’s a fifth-year senior. But Jeremiah, you’re 260 pounds. Fulkerson is 215, maybe 220 pounds. You have to dominate the game. Whether or not you’re scoring the ball, you have to put so much pressure on him physically that eventually he gives in and other stuff happens.’
“It’s just that simple because sometimes people come in with a reputation, and if you respect their reputation you can fall short. I think Jeremiah really understood that, ‘I'm just as strong as anybody in this league, man, and I can put on pressure.’ I think he did just that the whole night. We knew they’d send a double all kinds of ways. He knew that, embraced it and found the right guys and other guys made plays.”
BROWN COMES UP BIG
At halftime, Martin challenged forwards Kobe Brown and Mitchell Smith to play more physical against Tennessee’s Yves Pons, who had muscled his way into the paints for points and rebounds, giving the Vols some hope of making a comeback.
Brown came through with two crucial offensive rebounds to extend possessions late in the game to go along with his eight points. He also shot 5 of 6 from the foul line after missing all five of his attempts at the stripe in conference play coming into the game.
Heading into the second media timeout of the second half, Tennessee’s Victor Bailey Jr. was called for a flagrant 1 foul for swiping at Brown’s head on a drive to the basket. Brown slowly got up, stepped to the line and drilled his free throws to match MU’s biggest lead of the game.
“He was tough,” Martin said. “I just challenged Kobe and Mitch (and said), ‘You guys have to bring it to the table. They got two or three guys up and around Tilly. We need some of those offensive rebounds on the backside and we need you guys we to be elite defensively and do your job.’ Both of those guys embraced the challenge and played well in the second half.”
In Martin’s previous 12 seasons as a head coach at Missouri State, Tennessee, Cal and Missouri he’d never beaten a team ranked as high as No. 6 in the AP poll. He’s beaten two No. 6s this season, Illinois back in December and Tennessee on Saturday. The Tigers now have five Quadrant 1 wins when using the NCAA Net rankings, the poll used to select and seed the NCAA Tournament field: No. 6 Tennessee, No. 9 Illinois, No. 23 Oregon, No. 39 Arkansas and No. 71 Wichita State. (A Quadrant 1 win is a home win over a team ranked No. 1 to 30, a neutral-site win over a team ranked No. 1 to 50 and a road win over a team ranked No. 1 to 75.)
Martin made an impassioned case for his team to climb in the rankings this week.
“If you’re going to do your job, do it the right way,” he said. “We've earned it against a top 10 team in a tough environment and won the basketball game. It’s my fight for our players from that standpoint because they earned it. And they've come a long way.
“So, hopefully people do the right things and recognize the work we've put in.”