NASHVILLE, TENN. • The finality hadn’t hit Jordan Geist as he leaned back in the Missouri locker room at Bridgestone Arena. The senior guard didn’t come to Nashville to win a game or two in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
“I’m really disappointed. I really thought we could get all five of these,” Geist said.
No double-digit seed has made the tournament finals since the SEC expanded to 14 teams, but it’s that kind of gumption that guided the undermanned 12th-seeded Tigers through a turbulent but unyielding season.
They weren’t going to stop swinging until the final buzzer blared, especially their senior floor leader. Geist followed Wednesday’s 30-point outburst against Georgia with another 25 points in Thursday’s 81-71 loss to Auburn, a loss that sends the Tigers home from Nashville and all but certainly ends their season at 15-17.
“Anyone who knows Jordan Geist knew you were going to get an effort like that,” center Reed Nikko said. “There’s just no off switch.”
But there is to the Tigers’ season.
A year after making the NCAA Tournament, Cuonzo Martin’s team was short on healthy limbs, experience and depth and now wanders into the offseason. Mizzou is a long shot to make the National Invitational Tournament field of 32 and Martin said the Tigers won’t play in the 16-team College Basketball Invitational, which requires a $50,000 buy-in. Instead, Mizzou will save its money, learn from the past and move toward the future.
Even in defeat Thursday, there were glimpses of promise for next season, starting with freshman Torrence Watson’s 20 points. Watson, the rookie from Whitfield School, scored in double digits in five of MU's final six games.
"He's fearless," Auburn's Bruce Pearl said. "He has guts. He sees it, he can shoot."
Freshman point guard Xavier Pinson struggled with eight turnovers but was a catalyst in Wednesday’s win with 15 points. Javon Pickett, MU’s third freshman contributor, played through a back injury for the last month but was steady when healthy.
“They might be young but they’ve got a lot of fight in them,” Geist said. “For all the Mizzou fans out there, they should be pretty exciting going forward. Next year is going to be a special ride for them. I can feel it already.”
While next year's backcourt will include Mark Smith, out for 13 games this year with a foot injury that required surgery, and Dru Smith, a touted transfer from Evansville, Jontay Porter remains mostly a ghost around the program. Spotted at only a couple games this year after suffering a season-ending torn knee ligaments in October, the sophomore forward has rehabbed his injury in Colorado. He hasn't officially announced plans for next season but is widely projected as a first-round NBA draft prospect. When asked about Porter this year, Martin hasn't offered much of substance. Thursday was no different.
"I hear from him via text, that sort of thing," Martin said. "Not necessarily (about his draft plans). We'll see when we get to that point. He'll make the best decision. The most important thing is he makes the decision based on what's best for him. He'll do the right thing."
Mizzou's offseason roster reshape will arrive soon enough, but first, Martin’s second season on the bench was punctuated with another effort long on fight but short of a finishing move. Pearl’s high-octane undersized Auburn team feasts on turnovers and lets the 3-pointers fly. Mizzou was no match for that formula six weeks ago at Auburn in a 34-point drubbing. With MU’s season on the line Thursday, the rematch was far more competitive — with the result no easier to swallow.
“I thought we were right there,” Martin said. “Just didn't have enough to get over the hump.”
Hampered by fouls most of the night, Auburn (23-9), the tournament’s No. 5 seed, had too much perimeter shooting, led by Bryce Brown, who shook off a scoreless first half to finish with 17 points, one of four Auburn players in double figures. Auburn advanced to Friday’s quarterfinals to play No. 4 seed South Carolina.
Auburn was out of whack early with missed free throws, turnovers and lots of fouls. By the second media timeout, three Auburn starters had two fouls. But turnovers kept Mizzou from capitalizing on Auburn’s foul issues as Pinson turned it over six times in the first half. But backup forward Mitchell Smith continued his strong week with a 3-pointer, then hit another after crushing Brown with a pick at the top of the key.
Auburn’s sluggish start didn’t last forever. With Mizzou stuck in one of its typical offensive power outages, Auburn ran off an 11-0 run with baskets by five different Tigers. Malik Dunbar tried to snap off the rim with an uncontested dunk from the baseline, setting off the arena's pro-Auburn crowd. Mizzou went 5:17 between points but finally ended Auburn’s surge with Watson’s corner 3-pointer. That started a 9-0 Missouri run, all on 3s by Watson, Kevin Puryear and Geist, whose shot from the wing evened the score at 30-30.
The last time these teams met Jan. 30, Auburn turned a three-point halftime lead into a second-half blowout, outscoring the Tigers by 31 points at Auburn Arena.
The early goings of the second half had a similar feel. Jeremiah Tilmon finally got going on the low block with three straight baskets, but Auburn seized its first 10-point lead on three straight Brown 3-pointers.
Then it was Missouri’s turn for one last surge. The Tigers went on a 13-3 stretch, with Geist scoring eight straight points. Mizzou tied it at 52-52 on Watson’s 3 off a late find from Geist.
Geist and Watson didn't leave Nashville without making an impression on Pearl, who only has to worry about half the guard tandem next year.
"I didn't start off caring for Jordan Geist very much when he first started competing (in the SEC)," Pearl said. "He was sort of one of those players that if he was on your team, you'd love him. If he was on the other team, he bothered you. I want to congratulate him on a great career. Then when you see the combination of Geist and then Watson, you see sort of the torch being passed."
But this time, Auburn put the together the decisive run, answering with a 9-0 swing, including another 3 from Brown.
“I thought this team did a good job fighting back,” said Puryear, who played his final game for the Tigers after four seasons. “Even when the chips were down, even when we were down 10 points and it didn’t look good we still came back and tied the game. I thought this team fought until the end.”