Missouri men’s basketball rallies in final minutes to avoid upset against Bradley

Jeremiah Tilmon bailed out a sputtering Missouri offense with the game-winning and-one in narrow victory over the Braves

When senior forward Jeremiah Tilmon went to the free throw line with the chance to win Tuesday night’s game against Bradley, it felt poetic.

Here was a 36.8% free-throw shooter stepping to the line to clinch a game where the Missouri men’s basketball team’s shooting percentage was 11 points below Tilmon’s season free throw percentage.

“I just feel like we haven't played in like 10 days, so we were all out there a little rusty and sluggish,” Tilmon said.

But the free-throw percentage didn’t matter. Neither did the team’s 25.4% shooting percentage. All that mattered was the big number on the Mizzou Arena Jumbotron, where Missouri one-upped Bradley 54 to 53.

Early in the game, both Bradley and Missouri transformed the relationship between the Wilson basketball and the rim from casual acquaintances into best friends. The Braves and Tigers combined to shoot 15-70 from the floor in a patience-testing first half that ended with Missouri clinging to a 21.

Some of the poor shooting was the result of bad shots and stagnant ball movement, but a majority of the scoring struggles stemmed from stalwart defense from both sides.

Instead of being content with crashing the lane when a Missouri player had the ball near the basket, Bradley stuck with one-on-one defense.

Missouri forced the issue by causing 15 Bradley turnovers throughout the game, and only gave up 10 free throws in the contest.

“If you’ve seen in the first five games, we buckled down when we needed to get stops,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “All of a sudden, we buckle down and roll off stops. We have to get to the mentality where everybody on the floor, every time down, we have to get stops.”

Then the Braves got hot while the Tigers were still thawing out.

Coach Brian Wardle’s squad relied on an established star in senior forward Elijah Childs, who produced a double-double performance, and a sparsely used freshman in Jayson Kent, who poured in a career-high 11 points on 5-6 shooting after he scored only 11 points in his first three collegiate outings. As a result of their success, Bradley shot a blistering 55.6% from the field in the second half and led for most of the second half.

Most, but not all.

As the final media timeout approached, the Tigers trailed by eight with time not in their favor. So with one last chance to rally his team, Martin gave his team clear instructions.

“The message was clear,” junior guard Xavier Pinson said. “We've been here before. A lot of times, whether it was last year or my freshman year, so we've been in those situations before,”

Every player aside from senior guard Dru Smith stayed disciplined deep into the night, which was especially important in the waning moments. The Tigers pulled the game within two points before the referees called a foul. Kent had the chance to seal the game with 10 seconds left, but missed the front end of a one-and-one.

From there, Smith corralled the board, and the Tigers had one final chance to prevent the upset. Pinson had the ball and found Tilmon positioned underneath the hoop.

Then pandemonium ensued.

At a tough angle, Tilmon banked a contested layup off the glass and heard the whistle as the ball went through the nylon. With the game tied, he now had the chance to win the game for the Tigers. Tilmon had never hit a game-winning shot in his career, much less attempted one, but he stuck to his normal free throw routine despite the chaos on the floor.

“I was still laughing and smiling, so I had to take a step back and just told myself to calm down,” Tilmon said. “I do the same routine in my head, and I heard coach [Chris] Hollender on the sideline whisper ‘Routine.’”

As if Tilmon needed any more noise before one of the biggest shots of his life, Pinson took the opportunity to let his teammate know that all of the free throws were out of the picture. There was only one shot he needed focus on.

“Coach normally tells us to leave him alone, but I just had to tell him he had to make it,” Pinson said.

And he did.

After senior forward Mitchell Smith used his full wingspan to block two passes in the final second, Missouri’s coaches, players and fans could all breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the Tigers would advance to conference play with their perfect record still intact.

Missouri finished last season with a 3-4 record in games that were decided by five points or fewer, but they are already off to a 2-0 start after winning by a combined margin of four points over their last two outings.

“We talked about that in the locker room, because those guys are like, ‘Last year, we might not have got the result we wanted, we might be down 10 and lost it,’” Mitchell Smith said. “For me this year, we've been there, we've seen that, we've been through adversity, so we kept cool heads and we played basketball until the buzzer sounded.”

Missouri faced multiple tests that revealed whether they were fluky or underestimated. Missouri passed the on-court tests: two hard-fought wins over tough mid-major schools like Liberty or Bradley and a monumental victory over then-No. 6 Illinois.

But equally as important, the Tigers passed their off-court test: a 10-day break where the team had to wait a week and a half to carry over momentum from the Braggin’ Rights triumph.

Tuesday’s victory was statistically ugly, but winning those games for a Cuonzo Martin-coached team means more than a 30-point blowout.

“I feel like for us to come back in and be battle tested like that while still trying to get our legs back under us to try to get back in the flow of our normal pace, I feel like they prepared us really well to go right to conference,” Pinson said.

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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