Watson's career day pushes Tigers past South Carolina

For a team buried in the Southeastern Conference’s standings, one for which the NCAA Tournament is a pipe dream and the National Invitation Tournament is a long shot, sure, wins are nice.

But for Missouri, a team with no mathematical chance of beginning the SEC Tournament with a winning record, it’s performances like these that can truly provide Tigers fans hope for a brighter future.

Freshman guard Torrence Watson treated his home crowd to a career afternoon Saturday, as the rookie led the Tigers with 20 points, and Missouri (13-15, 4-12 SEC) picked up its first win in nearly three weeks, defeating South Carolina (14-15, 9-7 SEC) 78-63 on Saturday at Mizzou Arena.

Watson’s previous scoring apex of 12 points came five times this season, most recently in the Tigers’ last game, a 68-49 loss at Mississippi State on Tuesday.

Twenty-eight games into Missouri’s season, Watson’s production and confidence seem to be reaching a high point for the year. After all, the freshman has come a long way.

Many expected Watson to crack Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin’s starting lineup right away in 2018-19. After all, Watson came to Missouri from Whitfield School in St. Louis, where he finished as the program’s all-time leading scorer with 2,755 points.

Watson’s role changed mightily in Columbia. No longer would he be handed the keys to the offense. Instead, as a backup coming off the bench, Watson would have to find ways to be productive as one cog in a large machine.

But Watson looked like a lot more than a small part of Martin’s equation Saturday. That starts with the freshman’s offensive approach. While 3-point shots still made up the majority of Watson’s attempts at scoring, his aggressiveness in driving to the basket was something Missouri fans hadn’t seen before.

Watson shot 3-of-4 on 2-point field goals, including two and-one layups in the second half. While it may not seem like much, that’s a big development for Watson.

“(Watson) used to fall down a lot when he made that move stumbling in the lane,” Martin said, referring to one of Watson’s 3-point plays. “Now he’s finishing strong with it. It’s just with time.”

For Watson, the issue was never simply making his 2-point shots, though. He needed to take them as well. Of Watson’s field goal attempts this season, 73.5 percent came from behind the arc, a whopping amount for a 32 percent 3-point shooter.

By comparison, Mark Smith, the SEC’s leading shooter from deep before going down for the season with an ankle/foot injury, took 67.5 percent of his field goals from 3-point range this season.

As South Carolina came into the game with its backcourt depth depleted, with second-leading scorer A.J. Lawson missing the contest due to an ankle injury, Gamecocks coach Frank Martin decided to play a 2-3 zone to try and keep his guards fresh.

Martin’s zone surely seemed like the right strategy to defend Watson, as a 2-3 tends to force the opposition to make deep shots while locking down the paint. Ironically, it worked the opposite way Saturday.

“I don’t think we shot a great percentage from 3, but we took a lot of 3s, so (South Carolina was) closing out hard,” Watson said. “So it definitely made it easier to get to the basket.”

While Watson certainly wasn’t wrong about his teammates, who made just two of their 16 3-point attempts, he may have undersold himself. Watson knocked down four of his nine attempts from deep.

Watson’s effective field goal percentage, a measure of efficiency which accounts for the added value of 3-pointers, sits at 45.9 percent for the season. Saturday, Watson’s eFG percentage shot up to 69 percent.

“It makes a really big difference when you see shots go in. When we just played at Mississippi State (on Tuesday), my teammates did a great job of getting me the ball in great positions at that time as well,” Watson said.

For a Missouri team whose offensive efficiency took a major hit with the loss of Smith, Martin needs more performances like these.

Perhaps the lone knock on Watson’s Saturday came on the defensive side, something that Watson admits is still a work in progress for him.

Watson allowed 15 points, third behind guards Jordan Geist (18.3) and Javon Pickett (16). Watson said earlier this season that Martin has made it clear that if he doesn’t play defense, he won’t play at all. Seeing as though Watson played 32 minutes, it seems his effort was enough to go along with his scoring production.

As a disappointing 2018-19 season nears its endpoint for Missouri, it’s not wins over middling SEC teams that will be remembered. Rather, it’s the development of Martin’s team, and players, that should linger on Missouri fans’ minds.

Supervising editor is Theo DeRosa.