NCAA MBB: Missouri Tigers vs. South Carolina Gamecocks

Missouri forward Jeremiah Tilmon (23) shoots against South Carolina's AJ Lawson in a game Saturday in Columbia, S.C.

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If fans couldn’t tell before, Jeremiah Tilmon is the key to Missouri’s success.

After a three-game losing streak — two while the senior big man was away from the team — Tilmon returned like a messiah. He only needed five shots to impact the game. His presence alone spoke volumes.

Missouri enjoyed great shooting from everywhere, something that has been more common than ever for the Tigers as of late. They shot 45% from 3, marking the sixth time in their last nine games that they’ve shot 40% or better from deep. As for Saturday’s win at South Carolina, it was a culmination of Tilmon’s presence and his recent absence that helped.

Opposing teams know by now that even after a week layoff, they must throw several bodies at Tilmon to properly get him off his game. When doubles are sent, the 6-foot-10 center activates his vision. Some of Missouri’s cleanest looks from deep come while Tilmon is on the floor drawing attention. The Tigers launched 12 of their 20 3-point attempts while their star center was on the floor against the Gamecocks.

The Tigers played a couple of vastly different games from the perimeter during the week Tilmon was missing. In one, Missouri shot a season-high 32 3-pointers with no dominant inside presence on hand. In the other, the Tigers were exposed from the outside because their shot creation wasn’t enough to get the looks Timon’s presence guarantees.

When Tilmon left, Missouri learned the do’s and dont's of shots beyond the perimeter with the heart of its team missing. It showed on Saturday. The small-ball lineups that coach Cuonzo Martin experimented with ultimately proved useful even in Tilmon’s return.

The shift allowed Kobe Brown to assert himself and for the Tigers to run through him at times. His 12-point first half on 5-for-7 shooting was enough to get things rolling.

It didn’t hurt that Tilmon had his best shooting performance of the season. His second half quietly turned Saturday’s game into one of his best games in a Missouri uniform.

Tilmon’s 7-for-7 showing from the charity stripe marked only the third time he’s shot 100% from the free-throw line in his four year career on at least five attempts. His perfect 5-for-5 display from the field was also just the third time he’s done so as a Tiger on at least five attempts. The other two games were both during his freshman season. Tilmon shot a single free throw through both games.

Pair that level of efficiency with his four rebounds in 21 minutes and you have a transcendent game that might be foreshadowing Tilmon’s turn of a new leaf from the line.

While he played a perfect shooting game, it was his decision-making that put his performance and his team over the top.

In the two games Tilmon missed, Missouri failed to keep its foot on the gas and close out games. In the second half, it was the man in the middle who answered the call. When Missouri’s 16-point lead at halftime turned into single digits, it was Tilmon who lurked around the rim for a crucial bucket. With 4:07 remaining, he practically iced the game with a similar basket.

Tilmon exceeded expectations. Missouri can only hope that its big man will be timely for the remainder of the season. The Tigers will need a complete unit to finish strong leading into the conference tournament.

This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.

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