A complete offseason makeover raised the expectations exponentially for the Missouri basketball team. But a mysterious injury to star freshman Michael Porter Jr. and a few atrocious shooting nights have tempered the excitement for the Tigers, who needed to hang on in the last minute to beat Division II Emporia State 67-62 on Monday.
Missouri made just 2 of 20 shots from 3-point range and only 19 of 34 free throws against the Hornets. That close victory followed a blowout loss at Utah on Thursday in which the Tigers made just 5 of 27 shots from beyond the arc.
"We've hit a couple bumps," junior forward Kevin Puryear said. "This game we didn't play as well as we could have and also at Utah on the road. We've been fighting adversity lately. Now it's time for us to buckle down and come together. This is the most important time for us to come together as a team."
Puryear and Jeremiah Tilmon each scored 13 points, and Jontay Porter added 11 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks off the bench. Missouri (3-1) also got a boost from sophomore forward Reed Nikko, who scored eight points and grabbed four rebounds in 10 minutes.
Tilmon, Porter and Nikko are all at least 6-foot-10, which gave the Tigers a decided size advantage over the Hornets (2-3), whose tallest starter is 6-8 Hassan Thomas. Missouri's 24 offensive rebounds saved it from an embarrassing defeat to a scrappy opponent.
"If we didn't have those guys on the interior, we probably lose that game by eight or 10 points," Puryear said. "When our shots aren't falling, it's good to have guys on the inside making plays."
Brian Morton led Emporia State with 21 points, including 15 in the second half. Stephaun Limuel added eight points and nine rebounds for the Hornets, who helped their cause by making 11 of 12 free throws.
The game was tied at 28 at halftime, at which point Missouri had made just 1 of 13 3-point attempts. The second half started much the same way, as the Tigers continued to attempt and miss 3-pointers. Emporia State led 39-32 five minutes into the second half when Malik Hluchoweckyj beat the shot clock with a 3-pointer.
Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said he didn't think shot selection was his team's problem — the shots just didn't go in.
"Sometimes you can overemphasize pounding the ball inside," Martin said. "I know we emphasized pounding the ball inside, and now, all the sudden guys aren't looking to shoot."
A Blake Harris no-look pass to Tilmon for a dunk gave Missouri a 43-41 lead midway through the second half. When Harris found Porter inside again two minutes later, the Tigers led 50-45.
The Hornets never led again, but they did cut the deficit to two points with 1:32 left when Grant Shell hit a 3-pointer in transition. Danny Hodge again cut the margin to two with a 3-pointer with less than a minute left. Emporia State had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead, but Porter blocked a Shell finger-roll layup attempt in the lane, and the Tigers hung on.
"We had opportunities to make shots from 3, didn't shoot the ball well from the free-throw line, had 18 turnovers," Martin said. "I think the only thing that saved us was we were playing at home."
Missouri: Michael Porter Jr. did not play and did not sit on the bench for the third straight game because of injury. Martin said Porter did not attend Monday's game because he was seeing a specialist for his injury. Porter, considered one of the nation's top two recruits, has played only the first two minutes of the season opener. MU initially described his injury as a tweaked hip but has since only called it a leg injury.
Martin said he didn't have any further updates on Porter's status or whether he would join the team on its trip to Orlando, Fla., for the AdvoCare Invitational.
"I'm not sure right now," Martin said. "We'll see if he's going to Orlando with us."
Emporia State: Hornets coach Shaun Vandiver was making his first appearance at Mizzou Arena, but as a center for Colorado from 1988-91 he played against the Tigers next door at the Hearnes Center. Vandiver averaged 17.3 points and 11 rebounds against Missouri in seven career games.
GOOD REED: Nikko has been pleasant early season surprise for Missouri. The 6-10, 250-pound sophomore was hampered by hip injuries as a senior at Maple Grove High School in Minnesota and was slowed by a high ankle sprain as a freshman at Missouri.
"It's probably the best I've felt since junior year of high school," Nikko said. "I feel great. Huge credit to our trainers and medical staff for getting me there."
He has scored eight points in each of the last two games.
"He's one of those guys that carries out his assignment to a T," Martin said. "He executes everything we're trying to do. He's big. He's physical. The key with Reed is understanding how talented he is and really believing in himself. I think he's better than what he gives himself credit for."
Missouri will face Long Beach State in the first round of the AdvoCare Invitational on Thanksgiving in Orlando, Fla.
Emporia State will play Northwestern Oklahoma at home on Wednesday.