NASHVILLE, Tenn. – First-year coach Dennis Gates is in a hurry to turn Missouri into champions and remains unhappy his Tigers missed the Southeastern Conference’s regular-season title.
Now they’re targeting the program’s first SEC Tournament crown and must go through the league’s regular season champ to get there.
Nick Honor hit a 3-pointer with 1:45 left to put Missouri ahead to stay, and the 25th-ranked Tigers beat No. 17 Tennessee 79-71 Friday to reach the SEC Tournament semifinals for the first time since joining the league in 2012.
“We wanted to cut down nets, hold trophies, hang banners as the regular-season champs,” said Gates, who was hired last March. “I credit Nate Oats and his program for their successes. It has taken too long for us to be able to do that, and I want it more.”
The Tigers (24-8) will play fourth-ranked Alabama on Saturday. The Crimson Tide, the regular-season champ, never trailed beating Mississippi State 72-49 earlier Friday. Shortly after this latest victory, Missouri announced a one-year contract extension for Gates through the 2028-29 season.
Missouri won its fifth straight this season to snap a three-game skid in the SEC quarterfinals. The Tigers did it by knocking off the defending tourney champ in a taut game featuring 15 ties and 11 lead changes.
The last tie was at 69, and Honor put Missouri ahead to stay with his 3. Gates credited Honor with telling him during a timeout to give him a ball screen.
“Sometimes you don’t listen to your players. I listen to mine,” Gates said. “We gave him a ball screen, and he was able to knock down a big-time 3-point shot.”
The Tigers then forced a turnover on Tennessee’s inbound pass by Julian Phillips. D’Moi Hodge knocked down another 3 to give the Tigers their biggest lead of the game at 75-69 with 1:25 remaining. Missouri finished on a 10-2 run for the win.
Hodge led Missouri with 26 points, 17 in the second half. Kobe Brown added 24 and nine rebounds, and DeAndre Gholston had 10.
Tennessee (23-10) snapped a 41-year drought in this event by winning the tourney title in Tampa last year. Now these Volunteers go into the NCAA Tournament having lost four of seven overall.
“The biggest prize that we want to go after is still out there,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
Santiago Vescovi led five Vols in double digits with 17 points. Tyreke Key had 16, Jahmai Mashack 14, Olivier Nkamhoua added 11 points and 10 rebounds and Julian Phillips 10.
Missouri took the lead for the last time on a pair of free throws by Brown with 4:12 left.
The Volunteers led 33-30 at halftime thanks to Mashack answering a 3-pointer by Brown with 11 seconds left by beating the buzzer with his own 3. Mashack made it just after crossing the half-court line.
Tennessee has the best defense in all of Division I except against against Missouri. The Vols came in holding opponents to a nation-low 25.8% shooting from 3-point range and 36.4% from the floor. They also had been holding opponents to an average of 57.4 points a game.
Missouri improved to a perfect 9-0 in games decided by five or fewer points. The Tigers came into the postseason among eight teams unbeaten in such games and the only team with at least eight such wins. … The Tigers shot 60% (18 of 30) in the second half, and that included knocking down 7 of 13 (58.3%) outside the arc.
Brown said running against the Vols was the key.
“Hard to play defense when you can’t get back and get in front of the other team,” Brown said.
This was just the third full game for the Vols without point guard Zakai Zeigler, who tore his left ACL early in a win over Arkansas on Feb. 28. Barnes sees the final minutes where they miss Ziegler the most.
“We’re going to have to figure out what we’re going to do,” Barnes said.
The Volunteers now wait for the NCAA Tournament bracket announcement Sunday and lower seeding than expected when Tennessee was ranked as high as No. 2 earlier this season.
Missouri now has a chance to improve its own NCAA seeding while still chasing the program’s first SEC Tournament title.