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NASHVILLE, TENN. • Jordan Geist wasn’t ready to call it a career, so hold off on the obituary for the Missouri Tigers’ season.

A 71-61 victory over Georgia in Wednesday’s opening game of the Southeastern Conference tournament kept No. 12 seed Mizzou in Nashville for another day at Bridgestone Arena. Back in the building where last year’s season expired, the Tigers can thank Geist for this one. Fouls depleted Cuonzo Martin’s already thin rotation, but like he has most of his senior year, Geist did the heavy lifting, finishing with a career-high 30 points.

Was he snubbed by voters for some postseason honors? Perhaps. Between the All-SEC first- and second team, 16 players make the coaches’ all-conference squad. Despite weekly testimonials from opposing coaches across the SEC the last two months, Geist wasn’t among those 16 players honored as the league’s best this week. But it was again clear Wednesday where he ranks among his teammates.

“It’s easy to see why Jordan Geist is our leader,” forward Mitchell Smith said. “He comes out every night and does his best."

For the second time in a week, Geist, the Tigers' proud Hoosier from Fort Wayne, Ind., played against the coach who didn’t bother recruiting him to Indiana — and played Wednesday like he didn’t want his college career to end with Tom Crean on the other bench. Last week, he was the best player on the floor at Georgia, finishing with 18 points and six assists. This time, with most of his teammates struggling to generate offense, the Tigers’ season leader in points, assists, steals and minutes shot 9 of 15 from the floor and made 10 of 13 free throws.

Is there something about playing against Crean that brings out Geist’s best?

“It’s just another game,” he said in the Tigers’ locker room, smirking. “Obviously being from Indiana, you want to go to Indiana or Purdue and be in your home state, but I was blessed with the opportunity to come (to Missouri) and I’m taking full advantage of it.”

For Crean to extend his debut SEC season another day, his team would have to keep Geist from repeating last week's performance. The plan, Crean said, was to steer the senior away from driving with his preferred right hand. Mission failed.

“We didn't make him uncomfortable enough,” Crean said. “He made some tough shots.”

There will be tougher ones to make in the second around. Missouri (15-16) and No. 5 seed Auburn (22-9) play the second game of the day Thursday, with tip-off at approximately 3 p.m. Auburn handed MU its most lopsided loss under Martin back on Jan. 30, a 92-58 thumping.

“They really whipped us,” freshman guard Torrence Watson said, “so we have to use that as fuel for our fire.”

In their first postseason tournament victory under Martin, this one barely resembled the Tigers’ 25-point blowout of the same Bulldogs just seven days earlier in Athens, Ga. Both teams made an emphasis to attack the paint early. Prudent philosophy considering they combined to miss their first 28 combined 3-pointers a week ago. This time, Georgia all but ignored the 3-point arc early and attacked the rim with every chance, hoping to capitalize at the foul line. The Bulldogs got half the plan right — but made just 21 of 36 free throws.

“When you get rewarded with the free throw line, you have to be able to knock them down,” Crean said. “We just didn't do that enough.”

Missouri attempted six free throws before its first 3-point attempt, but as the half wore on, fouls wore down Mizzou’s already shaky depth. Center Jeremiah Tilmon went to the bench with his second foul with 9:41 left. Point guard Xavier Pinson followed him there with three fouls with 7:54 left.

Georgia, still hapless on the offensive end for stretches, went 7:36 between field goals while missing nine straight shots but still kept pace at the foul line. After a couple missed Nicolas Claxton free throws, Georgia kept possession with an offensive rebound and Claxton’s short jumper gave the Bulldogs their first lead in nearly 10 minutes, 25-24. He followed with another jumper for a 27-24 lead. The Georgia lead grew to seven before the Tigers countered with a 6-0 run with a couple buckets by backup center Reed Nikko. 

In the second half, all of 45 seconds ticked off the clock before Tilmon was whistled for his third foul trying to cover for Kevin Puryear’s missed assignment in the post. But the Tigers regained the lead on Pinson’s 3-pointer from the wing then scored on back-to-back 15-foot jumpers by Smith in the middle of Georgia's zone. Smith made his mark on the defensive end, too, twice taking charges near the low block, the second against Claxton, drawing the star forward’s fourth foul.

With Pinson and Tilmon back on the bench with four fouls, Geist continued to carry the load for the Tigers. His 3-pointer with 8:21 left pushed MU in front 52-45. He soon followed with a three-point play, knifing through the paint with one of his signature sprawling layups in traffic to pull the Tigers away for good.

After shaking off the early foul trouble, Pinson became a valuable sidekick, finishing with 15 points. That gives him 35 in MU’s last two games. Martin shared some of his most effusive praise of the year for his rookie ball-handler, who, not coincidentally, is playing his best basketball of the year.

“Sometimes looks like he's sleepwalking, but he has a demeanor to him where he's locked into the game, not fazed by the atmosphere, stage or situation,” Martin said of the freshman from Chicago. “That's something I had to learn in being with him. But he can score the ball. He wants to pass, but he can score it. He reads the defense, he makes plays. He's really growing as a point guard. Really been a vocal leader. He was a guy that didn't talk a lot on the floor, but he's grown in a lot of areas. It's fun for me and it's exciting for me to see him grow as a young guy in that position.”

As Blake Harris learned last year, life as a freshman point guard isn’t easy under Martin’s watch. The standards are high. The leash can be short. After some benchings earlier in conference play, Pinson has earned his newfound role.

“He’s ready for the stage,” Martin said.

On that stage Wednesday, Pinson attacked inside against Georgia’s bigger bodies. He threw a lob to Tilmon — the center’s only field goal on seven shots — and earned six free throw attempts.

“Everything was on my teammates,” Pinson said. “I just trusted in them to clear a path for me to do what I can do in order for us to get the win. But for the most part I just trusted my team to get the win.”

It was a rough shooting night for Martin’s other core players, as Tilmon, Watson and Javon Pickett missed a combined 16 of 17 shots.

But determined to wear a Mizzou jersey for another day — and not suffer another one-and-done visit to Nashville, where the Tigers lost to Florida State in last year's NCAA Tournament opener — Geist delivered. Only three players in team history have scored more points in a postseason conference tournament game:

Kareem Rush, 33 points against Texas in 2002

Linas Kleiza, 33 against Oklahoma in 2005

Dough Smith, 32 against Iowa State in 1991

Smith, 32 against Colorado in 1990

Rush, 31 against Oklahoma in 2001

Only three other MU players have gone for 30 in a postseason conference tournament game: Puryear (Auburn, 2017), Clarence Gilbert (Texas A&M, 2001) and Smith(Nebraska, 1991).

Before tipoff, Geist sensed he’d need a big game.

“Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “But big is not necessarily scoring the ball, it’s just putting everyone in the right positions, being a leader. I’ve been working on that all year and that’s what I’ve been focused on.”

Dave Matter

@dave_matter on Twitter

dmatter@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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