Missouri’s 69-60 win over Alabama was a bounce-back night for Tigers freshmen Jeremiah Tilmon and Jontay Porter.
After combining for 25 points in the Tigers win over Georgia on Jan. 10, both players had struggled on both ends of the court and Missouri lost four of five games before beating the Crimson Tide.
Wednesday showed why Missouri needs performances like that to be a regular and not random.
Both players struggled with foul trouble throughout the first half but made plays down the stretch, helping keep NCAA Tournament chances alive for the Tigers (14-8, 4-5 SEC).
“A lot of freshmen, it’s not going their way early, they kind of quit,” said Mizzou guard Kassius Robertson, a graduate transfer. “I told (Tilmon) at halftime, we need you.”
Despite his usual bout of foul trouble, Tilmon scored 12 points in 14 minutes. Six of the points came halfway through the second half, when Missouri was beginning to pull away. Despite having three fouls, Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin put Tilmon back in the game.
“That was a stretch where I didn’t want to put him back in,” Martin said. “His effort and his focus wasn’t there. He allowed factors to get to him. He went back in and gave us some tremendous minutes. I thought he did a great job of really setting that tone for us.”
Martin has said Tilmon has played timidly on defense in order to stay on the floor.
Tilmon was visibly frustrated in the first half when he was accumulating fouls and he credited Porter and the coaching staff for calming him down in the middle of a tight game.
“I just felt like I was on the court and I wasn’t being very productive,” Tilmon said. “Jontay and the coaches kept telling me to think positively. When I came in I just let the game come to me.”
With Missouri down to nine available players because junior point guard Terrence Phillips is indefinitely suspended and under Title IX investigation, both Tilmon and Porter said they’ve felt extra pressure to stay out of foul trouble with the bench being so short.
Porter had four fouls on Wednesday, one which came on a questionable call and another that stemmed from a miscommunication. Regardless, Porter said the team didn’t help itself by having close enough plays where the officials had to blow their whistles either way.
“It was a rough game officiating wise,” he said. “We did a bad job not fouling. Going forward that’s for sure going to be in the game plan. We all have to stay out of foul trouble.”
Wednesday was the first game in which Porter came off the bench since Missouri’s loss to Florida on Jan. 6. Junior point guard Jordan Geist also was pulled from the starting lineup Wednesday.
Martin said he talked to both of them about playing with the right attitude.
“It was a rude awakening for me,” Porter said. “Nobody wants to come off the bench if they’re already starting. I think (it’s) just my mentality mostly. My mentality going into games, because I don’t know if I’m supposed to be the main scorer or that role player. I just told myself, no matter how much you touch the ball, be aggressive. I was kind of lacking that the last five or six games.”
Both players said that when one gets going, it helps the other because defenses key in on one big man. Tilmon said whenever Porter has the ball, he can already start planning for what he can do if he gets it thrown his way.
Missouri will need both players to keep their strong play going, as No. 21 Kentucky comes to Mizzou Arena on Saturday. The Wildcats have a loaded frontcourt with freshmen Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt and Nick Richards, and sophomores Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones.
“When they were in the game they made the most of their minutes,” junior guard Cullen VanLeer said of Porter and Tilmon. “When they’re on the floor they’re big-time threats.”