For once, Missouri’s biggest weakness wasn’t much of a factor. Texas A&M entered Tuesday’s game minus not only starting point guard Duane Wilson but also freshman guards J.J. Caldwell and Jay Jay Chandler.
Missouri (18-8, 8-5 SEC) won the turnover margin by seven, and survived another nearly disastrous finish to knock off No. 21 Texas A&M, 62-58. Kassius Robertson led all scorers with 16 points. Jeremiah Tilmon was ultra aggressive, scoring 14 points on 12 shots.
“I just feel like the energy was different,” Tilmon said after the game. “It was my first time playing them last game and they got the best of me. I just slowed my mind down this game and just went out there and played ball.”
Perhaps more importantly, Tilmon didn’t commit a single foul in the first half and finished the game with just three. Tyler Davis, A&M’s leading scorer, was held to just five points and quickly got into foul trouble trying to defend Tilmon.
“I think that’s what you would see night in and night out if he didn’t have the situation with foul issues.” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “That takes a lot out of you. You start thinking about it, and it becomes who you are, so now he has to grow past that.”
Despite a deteriorated backcourt, A&M (17-9, 6-7) had no troubles early on matching up with the Tigers’ length and height in the front court. The Aggies out-rebounded Mizzou six to one in the first four minutes of play, and led 8-4 as a result. Three of those boards were on offense, and two of them led to A&M baskets.
Along with Missouri’s struggles on the glass, the Tigers couldn’t seem to buy a bucket early on. After a Jordan Barnett three, they missed their next eight shots, struggling both on the perimeter and inside.
It took a rare drive to the basket by Cullen VanLeer to end the drought. Robertson hit Kevin Puryear with a dime for a short jumper, and then Tilmon finished a physical and-1 layup to put Missouri up 11-10.
Tilmon had lowered his shoulder and bullied the defender on the play, establishing deep position before he went up with the shot. The referees were letting him bang down low, just how he likes it.
Both teams traded baskets from there, but the Aggies offense hit a snag after a jumper by Savion Flagg tied things up at 14. They went scoreless for the next six minutes and clanked nine straight shots. The Tigers went on a 6-0 run highlighted by a two-handed Tilmon slam and Barnett fastbreak layup. A&M coach Billy Kennedy promptly called a timeout, sensing that the momentum had begun to shift.
Mizzou outscored the Aggies 9-5 in the last 3:30 and went into the break up 29-21. A&M’s lack of depth at guard had started to show, as it shot just 32 percent and made only one of 13 threes in the half. Barnett led all scorers with 11 points, while Tilmon pitched in with eight.
A&M used a quick 6-0 run to cut the lead down to four barely two minutes into the second half, but once again it was Robertson, the Canadian graduate transfer, who came up big as his team seemed to be fading. He nailed a corner 3-pointer, then hit another one after a Barnett layup to make it 39-31.
Robertson had scored just three points on one for five shooting in the first half, but he wasn’t concerned. “I’m always confident in my shot, it’s gonna go down sooner or later,” he said. “I like to think of myself as a second-half player anyways. I just try to come out and play big when it counts.”
“I think it’s safe to say he’s our leader,” said Martin when asked about Robertson’s play. “He has a humility to him. Guys respect him, and you have to respect a guy that works at the level he works at. And he’s a good guy, so I think it helps. Guys don’t mind Kash getting shots, getting him open.”
Jontay Porter scored on back-to-back tough lay-ins, and a couple Tilmon free throws put Missouri up 11. Porter drained his signature 3-pointer from the top of the key, capping off an 11-4 run that gave the Tigers their largest lead of the night at 14 points. The Aggies got it down to eight points on a Admon Gilder three, but Robertson answered with an and-1 layup.
A&M ramped up the press from there, and thus came shades of the Mississippi State game. Jordan Geist turned it over on an errant pass intended for Porter, then got it right back on a turnover by Hogg. Geist used a nasty spin move to break the press, but Porter missed a wide open three.
T.J. Starks stroked a triple, Porter missed again, and Starks hit yet another 3-pointer. Three consecutive turnovers and some sloppy basketball followed before a Robert Williams layup made it 59-58. Mizzou was officially in trouble.
Robertson scored a driving layup to put his team back up by three points, but Hogg hit a clutch jumper. Tilmon split free throws after getting fouled, and the Aggies got the ball back with the chance to take the lead or tie.
Missouri wasn’t having it. The Tigers forced a shot clock violation with 20 seconds to go. The Tigers turned the ball over on the inbounds pass, of course, but forced an A&M miss. Porter secured the rebound and made both free throws to seal a fifth consecutive victory.
“Yeah, but now we can’t inbound the ball,” said Robertson when asked if the Tigers were learning how to win. “In late game (situations), for some reason, that’s our new problem.”
Missouri will look to extend its winning streak against LSU in a road contest at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
“You look at our resume, I think we’re past that,” said Martin when asked about the NCAA Tournament. “Unless some major collapse happens - let me knock on some type of wood - but I just think you look at the resume. I think that part speaks for itself. We’re just trying to get better as a team.”