COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Tennessee cut Missouri's lead to one with 1:33 left, and the Tigers were forced to do something they've struggled with all season: close out a game.
Unlike two recent last-second conference losses, Missouri sealed one up Wednesday night, holding on to beat No. 21 Tennessee 59-55.
"One thing in our two losses we had is our margin of error is so slim," Missouri forward Kevin Puryear said.
Puryear led the Tigers with 12 points and 10 rebounds, and Jontay Porter added 10 points and seven rebounds for Missouri (13-5, 3-2 Southeastern Conference), which had lost close games recently to Florida and Arkansas.
The Tigers found their rhythm in the second half, using 3s from Kassius Robertson, Jordan Geist and Porter to fuel a 13-2 run starting with 10 minutes remaining.
Missouri's 10-point lead with 6:43 left in the second half provided the Tigers enough of a cushion to avoid another blown victory. Missouri used a stellar performance from the free-throw line — 15 for 17 — to seal it.
"Our guys are really good free-throw shooters," coach Cuonzo Martin said. "So if it gets close, I feel good about our chances."
Grant Williams led Tennessee (12-5, 3-3) with 15 points. Kyle Alexander had 12 points and Admiral Schofield added 11. The rest of the Volunteers only scored 17 points, and the team as a whole shot 38.9 percent, including 23.8 percent from deep.
The lack of role-player support forced Williams into 35 minutes of play, a mark Volunteers coach Rick Barnes would have liked to avoid.
"We had nine turnovers and he had four of them," Barnes said. "Some of that has to do with fatigue. We don't want to play him 35 minutes, but that goes back to needing more from our bench."
Tennessee: The Volunteers had won three straight to reach No. 21 in the AP Top 25. Their three leading scorers — Schofield, Williams and Alexander — didn't receive much help, and they'll need more of a supporting cast to stay ranked.
Missouri: The Tigers suffered through a pair of tough defeats in their two conference losses thus far. Missouri's ability to close a tight game is a promising sign for the young Tigers.
POINT OF EMPHASIS
Missouri's defense held Tennessee's starting guards — Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden — to just three points on 1-for-13 shooting. Barnes harped on the poor play during the tail end of the first half, where Bone and Bowden missed six shots in between timeouts.
"We were horrible with our guards taking bad shots and not trying to do anything," Barnes said.
Robertson credited Missouri's strong defense for the shutdown of the guards.
"We made them frustrated, for sure," Robertson said. "We didn't shoot it extremely well, but we won that game on the defensive end."
STRUGGLING IN THE SPOTLIGHT
After No. 18 Kentucky's loss to South Carolina Tuesday and No. 17 Auburn's loss to Alabama on Wednesday, Missouri's defeat of Tennessee cemented a loss for all three SEC teams ranked in the Top 25 AP poll this week.
The defeats further taint the weaker top-half of the conference, but also display a well-rounded middle class of what Barnes calls the best conference in college basketball.
"I think this is a typical SEC game," Barnes said. "It'll be like this all year, I think they're all going to be hard like this. It's going to be a grind wherever you go. Last year it proved it was a really good league. It's the best."
Tennessee continues its two-game trip with a matchup against South Carolina on Saturday.
Missouri hits the road to face Texas A&M on Saturday.