It started with Missouri Tigers forward Jeremiah Tilmon blocking an incoming shot. Then the ball found its way to Xavier Pinson as he raced down the court in transition. Pinson then fired a no-look pass to Tray Jackson for a wide open dunk, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
The sequence, started by Tilmon, was an example of his impact on Mizzou’s 82-42 win over Incarnate Word. The 6-foot-10 forward was everywhere, affecting shots on defense while scoring on offense.
The two possessions before and after Jackson’s dunk all ended in Tilmon scores; his personal run helping MU pull away in Wednesday night’s season opener at Mizzou Arena.
When the three-point shots weren’t falling, the Tigers turned to Tilmon, who finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and a career-high five blocks. MU coach Cuonzo Martin said he thought it was Tilmon’s best game as an interior defender in his college career.
“When they came (into the paint), I just made sure I had my hands up and swung for the ball,” Tilmon said of his defense.
Tilmon said he knew what Incarnate Word’s game plan was: Pack the paint and double-team him. While that slows Tilmon, it also leads to open three-point looks.
But the shots weren’t falling as Mizzou finished 7 of 31 from three. It’s why the Tigers couldn’t pull away early. Once Tilmon got more involved, it was all MU needed.
“When you have a big man like Tilmon, you have to get it inside,” Pinson said. “When we get the ball inside to Tilmon, it just opens up a lot of three-pointers because everybody’s focused on him and collapsing on him.”
While Tilmon starred in the win, he finished with four fouls in 20 minutes, a nemesis of his since he was a freshman. In a change, though, he said he didn’t notice. As an underclassman, once he picked up a foul or two, he would look up at the scoreboard and let the fouls affect his play.
Instead, he played the same aggressive defense all night.
“I’m just out there hooping, I’m just playing,” Tilmon said. “I wasn’t really worried about no fouls, I was honestly just having fun.”
As for the three-pointers, Martin said there was little worry of MU’s inefficiency. The shots were open — a product of Tilmon’s presence — the Tigers just weren’t hitting them.
“It’s one thing if you’re shooting tough, contested threes and you’re shooting them deep,” Martin said. “If they’re open shots, that’s all you can ask for.”
Martin also said there was a hint of passiveness, especially when it came to feeding Tilmon. Instead of passing to Tilmon naturally, the players were forcing the ball there. It led to Tigers standing around on offense.
“It’s a two-way street, is Jeremiah doing his job,” Martin said. “If he’s there, feed him. Have savviness and deception when you’re passing inside to him. Don’t just sit there and try to give him the ball. Then now you’re not as aggressive and assertive as you need to be.”
Tilmon wasn’t the only one leading the Tigers, Pinson flashing his no-look passes to waiting teammates. The guard finished with 15 points and five assists.
The hope going forward is for Mizzou to knock down open three-pointers, which would space the floor and help Tilmon’s interior game. Tilmon said he’s a willing passer, especially when defenders double him. Martin said the two phases of the game — Tilmon inside, shooters outside — will be where MU’s offense can be effective.
“When I get doubled-teamed, I’m looking for that three-ball, I know they can shoot,” Martin said. “I got shooters around me.”
As for what’s next, Tilmon pointed to his own outside shooting. He’s at the point where he’s taking three-point shots in practice, but has yet to shoot one mid-game. It’s one area of his game he hopes to polish, though he said he’ll continue working on the fouls. That starts in MU’s game Friday against Northern Kentucky at Mizzou Arena.
“There’s still levels to go for me, of course, nobody’s perfect,” Tilmon said. “I feel like there’s way more room to improve. I’m just going to keep working hard.”