Five things we learned in No. 19 Mizzou's 81-70 victory over South Carolina

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune
Missouri forward Jeremiah Tilmon (23) dunks the ball during a game against South Carolina on Tuesday night at Mizzou Arena.

There's no place like home and Missouri men's basketball hadn't played a game at Mizzou Arena in 20 days.

That long stretch came to an end Tuesday night, as the Tigers clashed with Southeastern Conference rival South Carolina and proved just how comfortable their home hardwood can be.

No. 19 Missouri defeated the Gamecocks 81-70 to win its second straight game, with a rematch at No. 6 Tennessee looming Saturday night. The Volunteers, who beat Missouri by 20 points in the teams' conference opener Dec. 30, lost by 26 on the road to Florida on Tuesday, ensuring a collision of two-loss teams in Knoxville. 

The Tigers improve to 9-2 overall and 3-2 in the league with the victory, while South Carolina falls to 3-4 and 1-2 in SEC play.

Three Missouri players reached double-digit scoring against the Gamecocks. Jeremiah Tilmon tied for the game's scoring lead with 19 points, followed for the Tigers by Mark Smith with 18 and Dru Smith with 16. 

South Carolina got 45 points off the bench, including its two highest scorers: Keyshawn Bryant (19) and Trey Anderson (17).

Here are five things we learned in Missouri's win over South Carolina:

Missouri guard Drew Buggs (2) slips while dribbling the ball against South Carolina forward Justin Minaya (10) during a game Tuesday night at Mizzou Arena.

1. The Tigers got out of their home slump from tipoff

Missouri's past two home games (Bradley and Tennessee) didn't inspire much confidence as the Tigers didn't look comfortable for most of those 80 minutes. 

Against the Braves, Missouri needed a late three-point play from Tilmon to win. Against the Volunteers, the Tigers never led.

It was clear in the first 60 seconds of Tuesday's game something was different. On the opening possession, Xavier Pinson took a charge.

After solid play at both ends, MU was up 10-0 against a South Carolina squad with limited time together recently and coming off a late Saturday road game. 

Missouri shot 61.3% in the first half and 40% from 3-point range. It did have nine turnovers before the break, but forced nine from the Gamecocks as well. 

Tigers head coach Cuonzo Martin said "without question" the hot start helped his team to victory. 

"The way (the Gamecocks) play, if you go east and west, it'll be a long night for you," Martin said. "You've got to attack downhill against these guys. They're so physical. ... You've got to get downhill and force the referee to make calls."

Missouri guard Mark Smith (13) shoots against South Carolina guard TJ Moss (1) during a game Tuesday night at Mizzou Arena.

2. Mark Smith found his 3-point form

Mark Smith started the season at a fast pace, winning SEC player of the week in early December and keeping that form intact until a five-point performance in the Braggin' Rights game.

It took until the matchup against the Gamecocks for the Edwardsville, Illinois, native to regain his long-range scoring. 

Smith finished 5 of 9 from the field and 3-for-7 from beyond the arc. That came three days after a 1-for-7 performance from deep in Saturday's win over Texas A&M. 

"There was nothing really different tonight," Smith said of his approach. "I put in a lot of work with my shot. I knew eventually they will start falling. I just didn't know what game it would be."

Smith's contributions will need to be taken on the road, as Missouri's next home conference game isn't until February.

Missouri forward Jeremiah Tilmon (23) dunks the ball against South Carolina forwards Trey Anderson (2) and Justin Minaya (10) during a game Tuesday night at Mizzou Arena.

3. Tilmon no longer is just on a good stretch — it's the expectation

Tilmon is averaging 16.6 points and 8.2 rebounds in league competition after Tuesday, asserting his control on both ends of the court.

There has been speculation for years about what Tilmon's complete potential could look like, as his career has included a combination of injuries, foul trouble and inexperience getting in the way of that reality. 

In 2021, Missouri fans have seen three clear examples in the Tigers' trio of victories of what the East St. Louis, Illinois, native is capable of. 

Tilmon posted his second straight double-double and exited the game with 19 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, three steals and two assists. He played for a majority of the game with one foul or less. 

"The previous years, I was playing hard," Tilmon said. "My biggest thing was just staying on the court and being mentally strong. And I had a stigma on me for the fouls. So this year, I just felt like I relaxed and just been playing my game."

Tilmon said he's most concerned with rebounding and lets the game come to him offensively.

"(For) some guys, the opponent is the competition. I think Jeremiah's opponent is Jeremiah," Martin said. "And I say that with all due respect and grace. It's just a matter of him understanding who he is as a player, his talent level, his physicality. And then the other part is the wisdom over the course of almost four years now completed and the bumps in the road: the journey, the pain, the struggles, the ups and downs, the highs and lows. He's learned from those lessons and he's grown from them.

"He's embracing it. Sometimes you don't want to look in the mirror at some of those things that help you get better. He's embraced that.

"Now you're starting to see results of a talented big man."

Missouri guard Dru Smith, center, fights for a loose ball with South Carolina forward Keyshawn Bryant, left, and guard Jermaine Couisnard, right, during a game Tuesday night at Mizzou Arena.

4. Missouri limited South Carolina's standout guards

The Gamecocks duo of AJ Lawson and Jermaine Couisnard came into Tuesday's game averaging more than 30 combined points per game. Lawson entered with an average of 18.5 per contest, and Couisnard was at 12.5.

Missouri limited them to 11 total points with solid defense and limited room on the inside.

Tigers graduate transfer guard Drew Buggs played for 19 minutes, his most in SEC play, and helped shut down the duo.

That lost production for South Carolina wasn't picked up elsewhere, as no Gamecocks guard scored more than six points. 

Some offensive possessions were so frustrating for the visitors that South Carolina head coach Frank Martin slapped the chair he was sitting on at one point.

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin, left, greets Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin, right, after a game Tuesday night at Mizzou Arena.

5. The Tigers are progressing to a pivotal turning point

Selection Sunday is less than eight weeks away, and while Missouri isn't a lock for the postseason, it's in the best position it has been for several years. 

Currently projected as a No. 6 seed by ESPN's Joe Lunardi, the Tigers essentially have to go .500 the rest of the season to maintain one of the 68 NCAA Tournament spots.

With Missouri's talent, it should do much better than break even, but a win Saturday against Tennessee would move the Tigers much closer to a March Madness guarantee.

Erasing the blowout home loss to the Volunteers in December would boost the Tigers' spirits and resume, and Cuonzo Martin and Co. aren't looking ahead to anything other than Tennessee as they hope to keep improving.

"Plenty of work to do. I saw it up close," Martin said. "... We have to be better."

Contact Eric Blum at eblum@columbiatribune.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.

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