ST. LOUIS — Cuonzo Martin put the clipboard down, grabbed his Dasani water bottle and took a sip. He may have been hydrated, but he definitely was nervous.
Every member of Missouri’s fan base was nervous.
This day and this game were supposed to make for a celebration for every Missouri fan, a celebration surrounding Michael Porter Jr.’s return. If the left corner 3-pointer hoisted by Kassius Robertson with seconds remaining had gone down, it would have been.
But it didn’t. And it wasn’t.
When the ball banged off of the back rim and the final buzzer sounded, Georgia’s bench bounced up and took the floor while Missouri’s sideline slumped. Led by Yante Maten’s game-high 21 points, the Bulldogs prevailed 62-60.
“We struggled to make shots,” junior forward Kevin Puryear said in the locker room postgame. “I thought we were a little stagnant on offense.”
Regarding Porter Jr.’s return, this was the concern. Would it affect chemistry? What would his role be? While Martin admitted afterward that the coaching staff did not think the offense would flow as well, Martin wanted to put the nation’s former No. 1 player in position to catch and shoot.
With a minute left in the game, Porter Jr. did exactly that, elevating into a 3 with the Tigers needing a bucket. The ball hit nothing but the net, fueling a Scottrade Center crowd 15,129 strong.
After Missouri’s defense dug down and forced a stop on the next possession, Porter Jr. again received the ball at the top of the key for a go-ahead 3-pointer. It would have been a storybook ending, but it was not that type of day.
“The encouraging part for us is (Jontay Porter) was the only one who had a good offensive game,” Porter Jr. said. “We played, to me, about as bad as we have offensively all year.”
While Missouri (20-12) did miss shots it often makes — aside from Jontay Porter, who poured in a team-high 20 points on 5-of-8 shooting — Georgia’s defense played a factor in Porter Jr.’s shooting 5 of 17 for 12 points.
The Bulldogs (18-14) lead the conference in field goal percentage defense at .394.
“It was going to be hard for a guy who hadn’t played in many games or had any game rhythm to be super productive,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said.
For Missouri to have a chance, though, Porter Jr. was going to have to be productive, especially with the foul trouble the Tigers ran into in the game.
At the end of the first half, with Missouri trailing 33-24, four Tigers had at least two fouls. Of them, junior forward Kevin Puryear had three.
“I really don’t want to speak on the officiating,” Puryear said after the game, “but I think that’s kind of been a theme all year.”
For Georgia, the play of The Associated Press’ SEC Player of the Year in Maten has been a theme. With Missouri leading 10-0 just minutes into the game, Georgia’s senior forward hit the Bulldogs’ first bucket.
The 3-pointer sparked a 19-2 run, one that saw Missouri miss shots for eight minutes. Porter Jr. alone missed three midrange jumpers over that span.
“I thought he had opportunities to score the ball,” Martin said. “More than anything, he was probably rushing his shot — shooting it a little quick — because I thought the shots he took were good shots.”
In the first half, Missouri’s leading scorer, Kassius Robertson, only took three shots. Handing him the ball was a focus for the second half, and that was apparent on the team’s first possession.
Not only did a right-handed Robertson runner propel Missouri to a 13-3 run, but a step-back 3-pointer from the right wing capped it off. Each was essential in tying the game at 39.
The Tigers traded baskets with the Bulldogs from that point on, forcing a final-possession fling. Robertson, though, overcooked a jumper he would typically make.
“We lost the game,” Martin said, “and I felt like we had an opportunity to win the game. We came up short.”
Barring “a mysterious curveball,” as Puryear put it, Missouri will not come up short on Selection Sunday. Even with this loss, the Tigers are likely headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.
After the game — after the Porter Jr. parade had played out — Martin sat down on the podium with a new water bottle. He then glanced over the stat sheet, nodded his head and looked out into the distance.
“I think we’ll be fine,” Martin said. “I’m glad (Porter Jr.) actually got this out of the way.
“Now, we can move forward.”
Supervising editor is Pete Bland.