Missouri center Jeremiah Tilmon is about as large as they come in the SEC. But with a big stature comes big shoes to fill.
Saturday afternoon at South Carolina, those large sneakers read “Grandma R.I.P,” and “Granny R.I.P.” It was a tribute to his late grandmother, who the senior big man spent this past week away from the team mourning.
In his absence, the Tigers lost both of their games and searched for audibles without their coveted man in the middle. Tilmon returned in a big way against the Gamecocks, posting 17 points and four rebounds off the bench as he lifted MU to a commanding 93-78 win.
“There were no expectations for us as a staff,” coach Cuonzo Martin said of Tilmon in his return. “Just play as hard as you can play. We’ll get you in and get you out.”
Expectations or not, Tilmon delivered one of his better performances of the season. Missouri has seen three layoffs of a week or more this season, each time displaying its effects. This past week marked the first two games the Tigers’ starting center had missed all year.
But Tilmon showed no rust. Senior Mitchell Smith took the start, but Tilmon was eased into the lineup at the first media timeout. The 6-foot-10 center had a quiet first half as he got a feel for things. That was before he turned in 11 of the biggest minutes of his season.
With just over 12 minutes remaining, the Gamecocks chipped the Tigers’ 16-point halftime lead to single digits, and 15 seconds of MU’s shot clock at that point off the inbound had been spent unsuccessfully trying to feed Tilmon down low. The big man recognized his team’s dwindling shot clock and reacted.
South Carolina’s Wildens Leveque picked up Misosuri’s Xavier Pinson defensively. Leveque is bigger and slower than Pinson, and the point guard attacked him downhill as quickly as he could. When Pinson was beaten to his spot and stripped of the ball, Tilmon was there to corral the loose ball, demonstrate his sweet touch and release a floater over the extended arm of his defender.
It was timely. As was everything about Tilmon’s return.
He scored 12 second half points, going 4 of 4 from the field and 4 for 4 from the free-throw line in 11 minutes. His contributions were momentous, especially considering the week he and the team have had in their separate worlds.
“All of a sudden you have two games, and I felt like, you know, the home game and on the road, those are still games we should’ve won without (Tilmon) and we didn’t,” Martin said. “But to have him back, man, that’s one of our guys. We feel what he feels. Though it’s not our blood relation, we feel that because that’s our guy. So to have him back in the fold … of course they’re happy to have him back”
Tilmon didn’t just make significant plays, but he returned when his team needed him the most. After a three-game losing streak (two without him) the Tigers were headed down a road that nearly left them stranded. If Missouri wants to reshape its season,, it will need anything it can get from its star center to win for the remainder of the regular season.
Saturday, East St. Louis’ Superman saved the day, and the Tigers got back in the win column.
“It’s definitely a good feeling having Jeremiah back,” senior Mark Smith said. “Everyone was sorry for him. He lost his grandmother. He was very close to her, so we let him take his time away (from the team) because he needed that. Just to have him back and his presence back, you could definitely feel it today on the court. … Looked like he didn’t miss a beat.”