Mark Smith needed some reassurance about his jump shot Friday night.
While Jeremiah Tilmon, Xavier Pinson and Javon Pickett all reached double figures in scoring on Wednesday in the Missouri men’s basketball team’s season-opening rout of Incarnate Word, Smith, the junior guard, was held scoreless on 0-for-4 shooting.
And in basketball, seeing a shot finally fall after a shooting slump tends to lessen worries, especially when it comes to players who shoot heavily from 3-point range.
So after Smith had eight points in the first four minutes of the Tigers’ win against Northern Kentucky at Mizzou Arena on Friday night, fortunes became brighter for the Edwardsville, Ill., product.
Smith finished with 19 points on 6-for-10 shooting — including 15 first-half points — as MU won over the Norse 71-56 to move to 2-0 overall in the still-young 2019-20 season.
After Wednesday’s rough night, Smith spent all day Thursday working on his shot in the gym to “get my legs back under me,” he said. The extra practice paid off, especially from deep as he went 4-for-7 from 3 against the Norse.
“(I) came in about three times Thursday,” Smith said. “Today, I was making them, so it’s a great feeling. I’ve been confident just because I’ve put in so much work and I trust my jump shot, so I knew it was only a matter of time before they start falling.”
MU coach Cuonzo Martin has similar confidence in Smith’s jumper, saying he wasn’t worried after Incarnate Word and that he knew Smith would eventually knock down shots. Martin’s concerns were more based in the fact that he thought Smith had tried to do too much too fast on Wednesday — his first regular-season game back from an ankle injury since a Feb. 19 loss to Kentucky.
“I think the biggest thing for me with Mark was not trying to get seven or eight months back in two days, and just let the game come to you,” Martin said. “I never worried about Mark’s shot. I really didn’t, because of the time he puts into it. Whenever he shoots it, I think it’s going in.”
Facing a short Norse lineup — no player over 6-foot-8 earned significant minutes — MU’s forwards had a field day. The Tigers won the rebounding battle 39-28, overcoming the Norse and their inside-focused zone defense.
Tilmon scored 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting, going perfect from within the 3-point line. Mitchell Smith had a similar impressive workload with an effective 10 points and seven rebounds off the bench. This included good work as a stretch forward; the redshirt junior went 2-for-2 from 3.
With Northern Kentucky going zone, Martin said he gave Mitchell Smith extra minutes because he thought his playing style is better when he isn’t guarded man-to-man.
“I just love flashing the zone. It’s so wide-open,” Mitchell Smith said. “I like to find my spots in there. You’ve just got to keep moving. You’ve got to get behind players so they can’t keep attention on you. I just try to find gaps ... set a screen and pop ‘cause I’ve been shooting the three, so teams got to think about that.”
The key stretch of the game for MU came during a second-half surge when the Tigers went on a 17-0 run, while the defense played a part in Northern Kentucky missing 11 straight shots from the field in that same time frame.
Even though Northern Kentucky never led, the Norse hung around in a single-digit deficit for all of the first half with a small, guard-heavy lineup. Martin said Northern Kentucky’s zone defense took a bit of adjusting; but once the Tigers figured out how to score consistently on it in the second half, it was smooth sailing.
“We struggled against the zone. The first half was about the defense getting stops,” Martin said. “We knew they would go small ... and that’s a tough thing for a traditional ‘five’ like Jeremiah to go against. I thought Jeremiah did a solid job in it and we just couldn’t capitalize in the first half on the offensive side. But it worked.”
MU travels to Cincinnati for its next game, a top 25 tilt with No. 19-ranked Xavier on Tuesday. The Musketeers and Tigers are familiar foes: MU defeated Xavier 71-56 in Columbia last season.
Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m., with the game being broadcast on the CBS Sports Network.
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.