Porter Jr. rusty in return, Mizzou loses SEC tourney opener - KMOV.com

Porter Jr. rusty in return, Mizzou loses SEC tourney opener

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ST. LOUIS, MO (KMOV.com) — When Michael Porter Jr. checked into a college basketball game for the first time since November 10th, there was no score. No, he didn’t get the start—he entered with 17:22 remaining in the first half. Before he did, the action was off to a slow start after a few missed shots for each side. The de facto home crowd just down the road from Columbia, MO was eager to awaken, but it still needed a reason.

In came Porter Jr.—the crowd loved it. Jordan Barnett immediately aced a three-ball—Tiger fans were letting loose. Georgia missed a jumper, leading to Jontay Porter finding his big bro in transition for Michael’s first points of the day—Pandemonium.

When Porter Jr. entered the game, it was scoreless. When he checked out 151 seconds later, it was 8-0 Tigers.

Not a bad shift.

And that’s how it was supposed to be: a triumphant return for the biggest recruit in the history of the program.

But it didn’t last.

In what was set up to be a magical kind of weekend with the SEC Tournament in Mizzou's backyard for the first time ever, the Tigers fell 62-60 to No. 12 seed Georgia Thursday afternoon at Scottrade Center. For the rest of the first half after the impressive run to open, every ounce of flow in Missouri’s offensive game dissipated. And to say foul trouble crept into the game early doesn’t adequately emphasize the overwhelming onslaught of calls that went against the Tigers—the zebras were using their whistles more than the lifeguards at a public pool.

Mizzou missed 14 straight shots as Georgia enjoyed a 19-2 run to squelch any and all good vibes the Tigers had earned to open the game.

"It's huge when you don't take advantage of leads like that," Kassius Robertson said. "I think we had a lot of shots that weren't dropping. They usually do. We got down a couple times in the game, but we always clawed back."

The Tigers simply couldn’t find their rhythm, as six players entered halftime with multiple fouls and the team shot 24.2% from the field. First-team All SEC guard Robertson attempted just three shots in the first half. None of them went in. Porter Jr. led the team in attempts, yet made very few (2 of 10). For the Tigers offensively, only Jontay Porter seemed to find his zone with 10 first-half points.

"We missed some shots that we typically make," Robertson said. "We missed some easy tip-ins and some layups and some open threes. But I think we did a poor job of fouling, and we put them in the bonus really early, and they made a lot of money at the free-throw line."

They needed to shift the tide in the second half. The refs would have to swallow a few more whistles or the Tigers would have a genuine concern about having enough bodies to finish forty minutes. Georgia was also making everything—how do you lock down on defenses when virtually every defender who might go to battle underneath with Georgia star and SEC Player of the Year Yante Maten?

The Tigers battled back, capping a 15-2 second-half run when Robertson hit his first three-pointer of the day to tie the score 39-39. But the Bulldogs countered with a quick eight points, and the game was slipping away for Missouri once again.

As he did in the first half, Jontay Porter did everything in his power to will the Tigers to victory. His 20 points on 5 of 8 shooting—including four threes—led the team, while a couple of his eight rebounds were on the offensive glass, creating crucial extra possessions.

With the crowd behind them, the Tigers roared back one final time, and had the ball down one with time winding down. With plenty of time to set up the offense, Porter Jr. launched a deep three that would have brought the house down—but it didn’t fall.

Missed free throws by the Bulldogs allowed the Tigers one last chance, and though they executed a flawless inbound play to find Robertson in the corner, it just wasn’t his day—or really, any Tiger's day.

"The encouraging part for us is just that besides -- I mean, (Jontay's) the only one who had a really good offensive game," Porter Jr. said. "We played, to me, about as bad as we played offensively, besides him, as we have all year. So we've got some things we've got to fix, but it's small things. We were just missing shots."

Robertson missed the shot. Mizzou lost the game. The marquee matchup of Kentucky and Missouri that was destined for Friday afternoon—it’s not going to happen. Porter Jr. finished 5 of 17 from the field with 12 points and eight rebounds. It's understandable that he was rusty in his first game returning from back surgery, but that level of understanding doesn't make the loss sting any less.

The general consensus seems to be that this loss doesn’t cripple the Tigers’ chances for an NCAA Tournament bid—though it does toss a bucket of ice water on what could have been an electric weekend in downtown St. Louis. Still, it’s hard to say with certainty Mizzou will dancing until their name pops up on the screen Sunday evening.

That’s the way it goes when you lose your opener in a conference tournament—while you watch and wait, other teams projected to miss the cut have a chance to change their fate. But if all is well, and Missouri does land a tournament bid, the Tigers will hope Thursday held some value as the day Michael Porter was reintegrated into the fold.

"I think they'll be fine because they've had a chance to play with him," Cuonzo Martin said of adding Porter Jr. back. "I think, more than anything, because of the foul trouble with some guys, we had to go, and I think we kind of put him in some spots that he probably wasn't used to. But I think we'll be fine. I'm glad he actually got it out of the way and we can move forward. Things we can look at in practice to put them in position to be successful."

That's the key for Missouri and Michael Porter Jr. before the NCAA Tournament. We’ve seen him. His teammates have played with him. Now they have a week to figure out how to thrive with him.

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