Tilmon’s value evident in 66-58 loss to Kentucky

With Tilmon on the floor, Missouri traded punches with No. 4 Kentucky. With him absent, Missouri was run off the court.
MU forward Jeremiah Tilmon dunks over UK guard Tyler Herro in the second half of the Missouri vs. Kentucky men's basketball game on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo.

Sophomore center Jeremiah Tilmon shuffled his feet and bumped into Kentucky defender Reid Travis. He committed two violations, traveling and an offensive foul, but Tilmon had a clear preference for one call over the other.

“I said ‘I traveled,’” Tilmon said. “I’d rather get a travel than the foul. [The official] said ‘I respect that,’ but it was too late.”

Tilmon was given the foul from the official and a minute later, he picked up another whistle on the offensive end and was forced back to the bench with two fouls in the game’s first 3:01.

Tilmon sat for the rest of the half as Missouri’s (12-13, 3-10 SEC) 3-point deficit ballooned to an 18-point halftime hole. The team couldn’t quite pull its way out of it in the 66-58 loss to Kentucky (22-4,11-2 SEC) on Tuesday night.

While the lead grew with Kentucky runs of 9-0 and 10-2 later in the first half, Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin was afraid to send Tilmon back in and risk a third foul with more than a half left to play.

“I just felt like in this particular game, because of their interior strength, we had to go and ride with him [on the bench] for the rest of the half and try to get him to the second half,” Martin said. “Because if you get three fouls against those interior guys, it’s going to be tough in the second half.”

In the loss, there was the lone positive of Missouri outscoring Kentucky 35-25 in the second half. The run was another example of Missouri being a completely different team with Tilmon on the floor.

Although Tilmon didn’t foul out, his time on the bench was too much for the Tigers to overcome.

“Things are different when Jeremiah’s not on the floor,” Martin said. “Offensively, we couldn’t get a real flow.”

This difference in quality is also an indictment on the staggering lack of frontcourt depth for the Tigers. Senior Kevin Puryear’s foul trouble didn’t help, but Missouri was left with minimal options at the center position with Tilmon sidelined.

After Tilmon went to the bench in the first half, junior Reed Nikko subbed in and let a pass slip through his hands on the Tiger’s first possession. After Nikko struggled, sophomore K.J. Santos and redshirt sophomore Mitchell Smith played some minutes together as the two bigs.

The trio of Nikko, Santos and Smith combined for 4 points and four rebounds in 42 total minutes, while Tilmon had 6 points and seven boards in his 24 minutes on the floor.

It should be noted that most of the time Santos and Smith are on the floor, they are alongside Tilmon as a second big man. Santos is also new to the position after playing on the wing his whole career until this season.

But that leaves Nikko as the only option at center outside of Tilmon, and – as well Nikko has played in limited minutes this season – there is a stark difference between the two, mainly in MU’s improved productions with Tilmon on the floor.

In the 24 minutes, Tilmon was on the floor Tuesday, Missouri outscored Kentucky by 7 points and the Tigers fought blow-for-blow with a team that trounced then-No. 1 Tennessee 86-69 three days prior.

Without him, the Tigers were outscored by 15 points in 16 minutes.

Missouri is also 5-1 when Tilmon plays 30 minutes or more, with wins over Xavier and Arkansas. The team’s only loss in this circumstance was against No. 13 LSU, where Missouri let a 14-point lead slip away in the last 2:14.

“Whenever he is in foul trouble, that kind of puts a hole in our defense and our offense,” redshirt junior Ronnie Suggs said. “We can get kind of stagnant. We need him in the game as much as possible.”

When the second half against Kentucky started, Tilmon came out firing to lead a comeback attempt against the nation’s No. 4 team.

Tilmon started the half with an offensive rebound and a putback to cut the lead to 16 with 19:39 left. Tilmon was active on the offensive glass all night, finishing with five offensive boards, four of them coming in the second half.

He led Missouri to a dominating half on the glass, the Tigers outrebounded Kentucky 19-8 in the second half.

“They outrebounded us and we are supposed to be that type of team,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.

Later, Tilmon was able to spin around Kentucky center Nick Richards for a layup.

“The one thing we wanted to do in the second half was to make sure we get it down to J.T.,” freshman guard Javon Pickett said.

But it was what Tilmon did off the ball that made the biggest impact for Missouri. With Tilmon being the primary focus on offense, there was more open space for the guards to operate.

“He’s a big presence for us, so once he gets down there, the defense is going to collapse, which gets open shots for the guards,” Pickett said. “Or they don’t and that’s just one-on-one for him.”

In the second half, Missouri paired a four-guard lineup with Tilmon to take advantage of that space. Pickett, Suggs and freshman guard Torrence Watson were some of the players who used their speed and guard skills to take full advantage of the space to outscored Kentucky by 10 points in the second half.

Pickett played 23 minutes but scored all 9 of his points in a second-half flurry with Tilmon on the floor. While multiple defenders were boxing out Tilmon, Pickett escaped to grab an offensive board, then draining a triple to cut the Kentucky lead to 13 with 12:46 left.

On Missouri’s ensuing possession, Pickett drove the lane and got looks at the rim while UK’s help defense stayed put on Tilmon, allowing Pickett to finish at the rim.

At the end of his run, Pickett was fed the ball in the post and made a fadeaway jumper over one defender to cut the Kentucky lead to 11 with 4:38 to go.

Kentucky’s focus on Tilmon also left plenty of space for Missouri to shoot it from the outside. After going 2-for-9 from 3 in the first half, the Tigers shot 7-for-18 from behind the arc after the break.

Suggs took advantage of the space and poured in a career-high 13 points to lead Missouri. He was 3-for-5 from behind the arc, hitting two triples in the second half with open space in the corner as defenders were helping on Tilmon. Suggs also cut into open space for a layup with 1:42 to go that brought Missouri within 10.

Then Suggs and Watson both hit late 3s to cut the lead to 6 with 14 seconds left.

Missouri’s comeback attempt ultimately fell short when Kentucky made free throws down the stretch to ice the game. For Tilmon and the Tigers, it was too little too late.

But if Tilmon is on the court for two halves? Maybe it’s a different story.

“If we play a full game like we did in the second half, it’s gonna be scary for all the teams,” Tilmon said.

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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