COLUMBIA, S.C. — Dru Smith hopes all of Missouri’s players-only meetings lead to this.
Smith said the 20th-ranked Tigers met without coaches heading into Saturday’s game against South Carolina simply to make sure they were all of one mind heading down the season’s final stretch.
Missouri certainly looked in synch, with Smith scoring 17 and Mark Smith 13 as the Tigers snapped a three-game losing streak with a 93-78 victory over struggling South Carolina.
“You want to get everything out there,” said Dru Smith, the redshirt senior. “Anything that’s going to help us, we want to get it out in the air.”
The result was a hot-shooting, defensive-minded performance, with Missouri playing as it has for most of the season.
“It was great for our guys to get that win,” coach Cuonzo Martin said.
The Tigers (14-6, 7-6 Southeastern Conference) opened up a 19-point lead in the first half and stayed comfortably in front the rest of the way to sweep the Gamecocks (5-11, 3-9), who lost their fifth consecutive game.
The Smiths, unrelated senior starters, were a big reason for that as they powered Missouri’s game-changing 25-12 run in the opening half.
After Trae Hannibal’s second straight 3-pointer drew South Carolina to within 20-17 with 11 minutes left in the half, Mark Smith started the surge with 3 and Dru Smith followed with another from long distance.
By the time Dru Smith hit another 3 six minutes later, the Tigers were up 38-23 and cruising.
South Carolina rallied in the second half to slice its deficit to 59-52 on Justin Minaya’s basket with 10 minutes left.
Then the Smiths got going again, with Mark scoring seven points and Dru four as the Tigers stretched the margin back to 73-56.
“We told ourselves, `We’ve got to nip this in the bud,’ and that’s exactly what we did,” Mark Smith said.
The Gamecocks could not respond. Missouri shot 57.6%, the second time this season it has torched South Carolina after making a season-high 58.3% of its shots in an 81-70 victory last month.
“We continue to search for somebody to take ownership defensively. Defensively we’re really bad,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said.
Missouri finished with five players in double figures. Jeremiah Tilmon had 17 points off a perfect shooting performance (5 of 5 from the field, 7 of 7 from the foul line), Xavier Pinson had 16 points and Kobe Brown 12, all in the opening half.
AJ Lawson had a game-high 22 points to lead South Carolina.
Missouri was contending for one of the top seeds – and the double-bye that comes with it – in the SEC Tournament before its three-game losing streak.
The Tigers’ defense played a big role early on as South Carolina, 12th in league shooting percentage, went 1 of 12 during one stretch. The Gamecocks had missed seven straight when Lawson nailed a 30-footer at the buzzer to give Missouri a 45-29 lead at the half.
THE BIG PICTURE
Missouri: The Tigers had been one of the SEC’s strongest teams before their losing streak. They played that way again. If the Smiths can continue hitting from the outside while Tilmon and Brown control the middle, they’ll be difficult to beat.
South Carolina: It’s been a true struggle for the Gamecocks to find consistency. Beyond Lawson and Keyshawn Bryant, South Carolina hasn’t had a third scoring option to count on. It hasn’t helped that point guard Jermaine Couisnard was out for a second straight game.
The victory was the 250th in Martin’s career. The Tigers’ fourth-year coach said he’s grateful he’s accomplished that many because wins “are so hard to come by. I’ll keep plugging along.”
Jeremiah Tilmon had missed the past two games due to a death in his family. His return was a boost to the Tigers. “Just to have him back, have his presence back, you could really feel it on the court,” Mark Smith said.