ST. LOUIS — Perhaps the expectations were too high, the hopes hoisted upon Michael Porter Jr.’s back too heavy.
The freshman had played two minutes of college basketball, and Thursday afternoon, as he took the court for the first time in 3½ months, the Scottrade Center erupted in hoots and hollers. The crowd rose, its hopes along with it, and the next two hours would serve not earth-shattering highlights but largely disappointment.
Twelfth-seeded Georgia upset the fifth-seeded Tigers 62-60 on Thursday afternoon, silencing a Missouri-heavy crowd that seemed giddy before tipoff. As the Tigers warmed up, Missouri fans stood and watched, eyes glued to the 6-foot-10 freshman thought to be the program’s savior.
“Michaeeeeel!” they shouted, as a television camera loomed over a stretching Porter — the cameraman looking away, lens inches from the freshman. The focus stayed on Porter. From jump shots here to layups there. A court-level camera angle. Then one too-close-for-comfort.
In a tournament two hours from his hometown, Porter was the main attraction, the source of elevated expectations.
But he hadn’t played a college game in those 3½ months. It showed.
He shot 2-of-10 from the field in the first half and finished with 12 points on 17 attempted shots.
“In that kid’s defense,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said, “it’s awful hard to play your first couple college games. He didn’t practice most of the year, and to come out and play a high-level game, you’re probably not going to be real efficient.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for him even trying to do what he did today.”
The freshman’s offensive presence was, at times, jarring for a Missouri team averaging 73.7 points per game. Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said because of foul trouble — Kevin Puryear and Jeremiah Tilmon fouled out, and the team committed 25 total — Porter played more than expected.
On Wednesday, Martin said he would be surprised if the freshman clocked 25 to 30 minutes. Thursday afternoon, he came close, finishing the game with 23 minutes and eight rebounds.
“You don’t have a real flow,” Martin said. “I thought the biggest thing was trying to put Mike in position where he can catch and shoot as opposed to having to make plays off the dribble and attack the rim.”
He still attacked the rim. Porter’s first points came fewer than four minutes into the contest, when his brother Jontay Porter dished him the ball in the lane. He elevated, untouched, and laid in his first points since a Nov. 10 layup against Iowa State.
Reality soon followed. Georgia’s Nicolas Claxton swatted away a layup attempt. Three-pointers were hurled to no avail.
“Maybe he’s a step slow,” Martin said of the freshman. “Instead of a 40-inch vertical, it’s 37. And really just going through it. The great thing for him is he went through it. Now we can take a couple days off, regroup and put him in different spots.”
Most of Porter Jr.’s shots were quality, Martin said, but with Tilmon and Puryear on the bench amidst foul trouble, the freshman found himself in unfamiliar positions. There were few easy looks and fewer moments of dominance.
“My whole thing coming back was to help where I can and do what I can to help,” Porter Jr. said.
That help came, namely in the form of a 3-pointer with one minute to play, which brought the Tigers within a point. Scottrade Center erupted, and for a moment, it seemed that the supposed savior would live up to his lofty expectations.
It was not to be. Georgia made just one free throw in four last-minute attempts, but the score held thanks to the Bulldogs’ timely rebounds.
Just more than four months ago, Porter Jr. sat in the bowels of the Sprint Center after an exhibition loss to Kansas. He showed little emotion and slumped his shoulders. He put the loss on himself.
Thursday evening, his demeanor seemed more upbeat. The freshman pursed his lips and answered questions about what went wrong and why. He said he was proud of his brother and how he played. He said his team has things to fix.
And then he walked out, packed his things and boarded the team bus for another long trip down Interstate 70.
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