On Saturday morning, it was announced that the long-awaited return of Michael Porter Jr. would be put off until at least the SEC Tournament. The news came as a disappointment to many who hoped to see the freshman phenom return to Mizzou Arena in the regular-season finale.
Instead, fans at Mizzou Arena had to “settle” for watching their Tigers (20-11, 10-8 SEC) lock up the 5-seed in the conference tourney and almost certainly clinch an NCAA Tournament bid.
Missouri defeated Arkansas 77-67 behind a dominant performance by its two freshman bigs. Jontay Porter scored 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while Jeremiah Tilmon dropped a career-high 17 points and snatched eight boards.
“We’re just as good as anybody in America,” Cuonzo Martin said. “We have enough to be as good as anybody as long as we’re like this [clasps hands], and if those two stay out of foul trouble. At the same time, we don’t have enough. Our margin of error is so slim if we’re not on the same page.”
In a single quote, Martin perfectly described a team that went from lofty expectations, to being doubted by everyone, to frustrating the hell out of its fans with heartbreaking losses. Even Martin admitted that he told his staff “We could have won this league” three weeks ago.
Missouri missed its first five shots, falling behind 5-0 and failing to score for the first three minutes. Porter and Tilmon ended the early drought with a couple of hook shots, and 3-pointers from Kassius Robertson, Jordan Barnett, and Barnett again gave the Tigers an 18-14 lead.
Arkansas (21-10, 10-8) stopped the bleeding on a Jaylen Barford layup, but Tilmon fired right back with a short jumper.
Anton Beard blanked on a lay-in, and Jordan Geist came up with the ball near halfcourt. He briefly glanced back at the defender before rising up and just barely getting the ball above the rim for a dunk.
The crowd didn’t care that it was a rimgrazer — they went crazy all the same.
The Razorbacks silenced the fans with an 8-2 run that tied the game at 24, but the Tigers continued to attack the paint, and success followed. Porter made a fading jumper before Mizzou hit six straight free throws to retake a 32-26 advantage. Barford drained a three, but Tilmon threw down a two-handed slam in response.
The Tigers outscored Arkansas 15-7 to end the half and led 39-31. Tilmon was having one of his most active games yet, leading all scorers with 12 points. “I wasn’t focused on scoring the ball or anything,” he said. “I was just out there playing and then I looked up and I had 12 points. I was just playing ball.”
He continued his excellent play into the second half, finishing an and-1 dunk for the Tigers’ first points. But the Razorbacks ramped up the pressure and started to trap Mizzou’s ball-handlers, forcing three quick turnovers.
Daniel Gafford took advantage, scoring six straight points inside to make it a one-possession game. Later, the Razorbacks tied the game on a Beard layup after Barford stole Robertson’s inbounds pass. Tilmon nearly dunked on an Arkansas defender, but drew the foul and made both free throws. The Tigers got a stop and Barnett hit a timely 3-pointer to put his team up 56-51.
Barnett and Geist both hit a pair of free throws before Porter nailed a three to make it a 10-point game. Porter soon found the ball in his hands on the perimeter once more. He pump faked, threw out a jab-step for good measure and swished another triple.
“When he’s hitting that three, there’s not really anything teams can do about that,” Robertson said of Porter. “It’s really a nightmare for teams.”
The Razorbacks ripped off a quick 6-0 run to get the lead back down within striking distance, but Mizzou finished the game on an 10-6 run and walked away with the win.
Missouri will meet the winner of the No. 12 and No. 13 game in the second round of the SEC Tournament at around 2:30 p.m. CT on Thursday in St. Louis. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network.
“This is a team and a group of fans that have seen the struggle,” Barnett said. “To come out this season and get our 20th win means a lot, but obviously we’re not done.”
“They’ve been through a lot,” Martin said. “I never understood the emotional fatigue or letdown when you struggle in a program and you lose for so long. I changed my approach as a coach and just have more compassion in areas where I should. I grew up a lot as a coach, because I’ve never been around that. I’m happy, not only for our players, our staff, but for the university and the state of Missouri. This is what it’s about and this is what this university has been about when it comes to basketball.”
Michael Porter Jr. wasn’t ready
Approaching the game, there will be more questions about Michael Porter Jr.’s status. Mizzou has accomplished quite a bit without him at this point.
“It’s been amazing what this team’s done despite losing the best player in the country, Jontay Porter said. “I think it’s been crazy how we’ve kind of stuck together despite everyone saying we’re not gonna do anything without Mike. It’s been awesome. Hopefully he gets right and he can join us and we can make a run at this thing.”
As for why Porter Jr. didn’t play tonight, Martin said he simply wasn’t ready. However, an SEC Tournament return sounds likely. Porter Jr. hinted at it in his press release, and Martin backed that up after Missouri’s win.
“I think so,” said Martin when asked if Porter Jr. appearing in the tourney was a possibility. “When he plays, he plays. There’s no minimal [role]. We playing, we’re trying to win games. He’ll play til’ he’s exhausted, we’ll go take him out. We rollin.”
VanLeer tears his ACL
In the second half, Cullen VanLeer collapsed near the Arkansas bench with an apparent leg injury. Martin crossed the court to check on him before he was helped off of the floor. VanLeer couldn’t put any weight on the leg and was grimacing. After the game, Martin revealed that VanLeer suffered a torn ACL.
“It’s unfortunate for Cullen,” Martin said. “Because obviously he’s been great for us. His leadership, being vocal, he brings his hard hat even though his numbers don’t say it.” Brett Rau is expected to take his minutes in the rotation.