A heated exchange lit a fire under Missouri men’s basketball Tuesday night.
As the Tigers looked to complete a comeback attempt against Tennessee in their Southeastern Conference home opener, junior Mitchell Smith got tangled up with Volunteers freshman Santiago Vescovi, which after video review resulted in a technical foul on Smith.
Fresh off a 14-5 run to tie the game after trailing by as many as nine early in the second half, the sequence ratcheted up the intensity at Mizzou Arena as Missouri sought a statement victory to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume.
But it was Vescovi and the Volunteers who enjoyed the last laugh.
“We fought to get back in it but just couldn’t capitalize,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said.
Vescovi, a mid-year enrollee from Uruguay playing just his second game with the Vols, scored eight points, including a pair of 3-pointers, in a span of 54 seconds to help Tennessee turn a tie score into a 61-53 lead with 4:26 remaining.
Missouri, playing without junior center Jeremiah Tilmon as he battles a stress fracture in his left foot that a team spokesperson said will sideline him indefinitely, pulled back within five in the closing minutes but never led again as Tennessee defeated the Tigers 69-59.
Tennessee closed strong with a 16-6 run and won in Columbia despite 21 turnovers.
“Hats off to those guys, they did a good job making those 3-point shots,” Martin said. “We didn’t do a good job really contesting those hot hands. … They made timely plays and scored some big baskets late.”
Missouri falls to 8-6 overall and 0-2 in the SEC. Tennessee improves to 9-5 and 1-1.
Senior Reed Nikko started in Tilmon’s place for the third straight game, but a collective of Tigers were given increased responsibility.
Freshman Tray Jackson scored 11 points in just nine minutes, while Smith finished with 10 as the lone other MU player in double figures.
Nikko finished the game with six points and three rebounds for Missouri in 20 minutes.
Tennessee, by contrast, had six players net 10 or more points, led by senior Jordan Bowden with 14 just three days after he was held to three in a loss to LSU.
Tennessee hit back-to-back 3s to open the second half as part of a run that helped the Vols build a 40-31 lead.
Jackson and the Tigers fought right back, however. The forward scored half Missouri’s points during an extended run to tie the game at 45 with 12:23 remaining.
“Tray came in and gave us great minutes scoring the basketball, so I was happy to see that,” Martin said.
Tennessee led Missouri 32-28 at halftime after the teams combined for 21 field goals compared to 20 turnovers in the first half.
Seven Missouri players played double-digit minutes in the first half, with 11 Tigers total seeing the floor in the loss.
Tennessee shot 23 of 43 (53%) overall while Missouri went 19 of 54 (35%) from the field. The Vols went 11-for-24 (46%) from 3-point range compared to 9-for-25 (36%) for the Tigers.
Tennessee won the rebound margin 33-29 over MU, which was led by Smith with seven boards.
Missouri is scheduled to host Florida at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Mizzou Arena.
The Gators are 2-0 in SEC play with wins over Alabama and South Carolina.