Jeremiah Tilmon knew his team needed him on Saturday, but he just couldn’t go.
Tilmon, Missouri’s standout center, had all four wisdom teeth removed earlier in the week. He also had an infection in the two bottom wisdom teeth.
The pain kept him on the sideline as the Tigers lost to the Aggies.
“It was like a pain I never felt before,” Tilmon said.
Luckily for Missouri, the pain subsided and he was on the floor for Tuesday’s game against Arkansas and Daniel Gafford. In a battle of two of the top post players in the Southeastern Conference, Tilmon was one of the main reasons Missouri defeated the Razorbacks 79-78.
Gafford finished with 26 points and eight rebounds, while Tilmon finished with 21 points and five rebounds in 30 minutes.
“I guess he had surgery on his wisdom tooth. He needs to do that every game if he is going to play like that,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said joking after the game.
While Tilmon was a force on the offensive end all game, it was the stop he made at the end that sealed it for the Tigers.
Leading by just one point with 10.5 seconds left, Missouri had the tough task of slowing down Gafford for just one more possession. Gafford, who shot 12 of 17 from the field, scored on the previous possession, an alley-oop from Jalen Harris.
Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin figured Arkansas was going to go back to that play, so he told the team to switch every screen.
Ronnie Suggs was guarding Harris, while Tilmon was on Gafford. When Gafford set a screen for Harris, Tilmon switched. Harris leaned into Tilmon and threw up a shot before the buzzer but it was off the mark and Suggs tipped the rebound to Tilmon to seal the win.
Tilmon, who is known for his foul trouble, thought another foul was going to be called on him.
“They weren’t expecting the switch,” Tilmon said. “He was trying to flop and threw the ball up and I mean luckily the ref didn’t call it. On film it looked like it was kind of a film, but the ref didn’t call it so it wasn’t a foul.”
The stop sealed the win for Missouri (12-11, 3-8) who avoided going under .500 for the first time in the Cuonzo Martin era. It was also Missouri’s third straight win over Arkansas in Columbia.
But the win was about much more than just Tilmon.
Though Tilmon and Gafford battled back and forth for much of the game, when Missouri needed a big play there were a flurry of players who stepped up.
Jordan Geist, who hit a 3-pointer with 12 minutes and 49 seconds left in the first half to give Missouri an early 10 point lead, finished with 18 points, five rebounds, two assists and no turnovers.
The ball control proved to be a crucial difference for Missouri in the second matchup with the Razorbacks.
Missouri turned the ball over 24 times in Fayetteville on Jan. 23. On Tuesday, the Tigers turned the ball over just 11 times.
“If we take care of the ball we are a different team,” Martin said. “But of course with Jeremiah on the floor, he’s just a presence. Not necessarily in points, but just a presence because we need that production the throw the ball down to him.”
With Tilmon on the floor and the turnovers cut down, Missouri had one of its best halves of the season. The Tigers shot 43 percent from the field and led Arkansas 46-36 at the break. The Tigers’ 46 points were the second-most points scored in a half this season, behind the 47 second-half points against Oral Roberts.
To put it in perspective, Missouri scored just 59 total points against Texas A&M on Saturday.
Tilmon’s dominance carried over into the second half, as he finished an and-1 opportunity on the opening possession. Missouri’s offense, though, slowed down from the breakneck 1.3 points per possession pace it was on.
Arkansas, on the other hand, finally got some help for Gafford. Isaiah Joe, who scored 23 points in the first meeting, scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half. Missouri led by as much as 14 in the second half, but led by Joe and Gafford the Razorbacks cut the lead to two multiple times.
Big shot after big shot, pushed Missouri’s lead just out of reach of Arkansas down the stretch.
Suggs, who was the hero on the last possession boxing out Gafford, scored five points in the game. Suggs hit a corner 3-pointer when Arkansas cut the lead to four with 5:09 to play and his floater with 3:14 gave the Tigers a five point lead.
Freshman guard Xavier Pinson came up big as well. Pinson, who finished with 11 points and a team-high nine rebounds, hit layup past the outstretched arm of Gafford to give Missouri a six point lead with just under four minutes left.
Two possessions later a step back jumper over Gafford gave Missouri a four point lead.
“He is always going to go out there and fight,” Tilmon said of Pinson. “He had nine rebounds, he had more rebounds than me. … If he feel like we are down, he feels like he can put the team on his back and do what he can do. I trust him.”
When it absolutely needed to, Missouri answered every Arkansas punch. A big part of that was Tilmon, who though he didn’t outscore Gafford, showed that he’s one of the best bigs in the conference when he’s on the floor.
Kevin Puryear, who finished with eight points and eight rebounds, doesn’t think there is a better post player in the league.
“He thinks he is the best and I think he approaches every game like that,” Puryear said. “I haven’t seen anybody with that size and that good of footwork. He’s developing every single day. He’s going to be a hell of a basketball at this school and hopefully at the next level.