Kentucky win proves play of Tilmon, Porter important for Tigers

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Jontay Porter

With his tongue dangling beneath his lips after having just drilled a jumper from the paint’s Southeastern Conference logo, Jeremiah Tilmon jogged back on defense.

He was happy. He was energized. He was … playing.

Missouri won Saturday’s matinee showdown against Kentucky 69-60 thanks to physicality and finesse. Tilmon, Missouri’s freshman forward synonymous with fouling, was a major contributor toward the former. Jontay Porter, a fellow freshman who often tweets about investing in cryptocurrency, contributed to the latter.

“They’ve been huge for us the past couple of games,” senior forward Jordan Barnett said postgame of Tilmon and Porter. “Jontay’s always a really smart player. Jeremiah’s always a pitbull down there. It’s good to see them get back into the flow, because we certainly need them to win games.”

While he may have committed four fouls against the Wildcats (17-6, 6-4 SEC) on Saturday, Tilmon added nine points and five rebounds for the Tigers (15-8, 5-5). He also recorded a very timely block, as did Porter, who finished with 13 points and eight rebounds.

After the game, Kentucky freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt was asked about the opposing two players.

“They’re pretty good,” he replied.

Kentucky coach John Calipari answered similarly: “They played good. They played good.”

They did play well, but they haven’t always in this 2017-18 season.

On Jan. 20, against Texas A&M (the first loss in Missouri’s recent three-game losing streak), Porter shot 0-8 from the field and turned the ball over twice. Tilmon scored nine points and grabbed five rebounds that night. But he fouled out.

As mentioned, fouling has often been a clear Achilles’ heel for Tilmon, and it’s become a source for memes on Twitter and elsewhere.

“When he comes to the bench, our staff has made a conscious effort to talk to him,” Missouri first-year coach Cuonzo Martin said. “With him, it’s about calming down.”

While he did foul out Wednesday at Alabama, the payoff on that front showed in Missouri’s 69-60 win.

Tilmon, who had not scored double digits since early January, scored 12 points in that game. He also made like a wall on defense and limited second-chance opportunities in the paint.

“He really affects the game in ways you might not think,” junior forward Kevin Puryear said. “His presence on the floor is just a game-changer.”

So, too, is Porter’s presence — not Michael Porter Jr.’s, of course.

The game, played on CBS with the iconic Bill Raftery on the microphone, was hyped preseason with the possibility of Porter Jr.’s playing.

As the story goes, Porter Jr. underwent back surgery in November. Then, freshman C.J. Roberts and Blake Harris transferred. Last week, junior point guard Terrence Phillips was suspended indefinitely.

Through it all, Missouri has taken the mindset of its coach.

“He’s brought things out of us all that we didn’t even know we had in ourselves,” Puryear said.

Jontay Porter knew he had the talent, which is why he reclassified to play for Missouri this season. His play Saturday — 3-pointers, midrange jumpers and assists out of the post — confirmed that.

In the second half, Missouri needed a bucket when Tilmon hit the aforementioned jumper. Afterward, while facing the student section, he stuck his tongue out and smiled.

Late in the second half, with 2 minutes, 23 seconds remaining, No. 23 in black and gold — yes, Tilmon — recorded a block. He managed to stay inbounds, save the ball and seal the deal.

“His spirit has been better,” Martin said of Tilmon, “and it won’t happen overnight.”

Missouri’s chances at making the NCAA Tournament won’t change overnight, either. Although, thanks to the performances of Tilmon and Porter, Saturday’s win certainly helped.

Supervising editor is Pete Bland: blandp@missouri.edu, 882-5729.

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