The Missouri Tigers welcomed the visiting Bradley Braves in their last game before heading home for the holidays. Missouri got the win in tonight’s matchup, but Bradley took them down to the final seconds, literally.
From the beginning, scoring struggles seemed to be the theme in the first half. The Tigers got off to a sluggish start, missing their first four three pointers and eight shots from the field. The visiting Bradley Braves made it clear that they were not a team to overlook, despite Missouri being ranked in the top 15. The Braves demonstrated their tenacity on defense, which proved to be a challenge for Missouri early. Though there was suffocating defense from Bradley throughout the first half, neither side looked great on offense. Both teams only managed to put two points on the board heading into the first TV timeout.
The tone in this game was set from the opening tip, that being a physical, defensive grudge match. Bradley crashed the boards hard the first 20 minutes and managed to snag 13 offensive rebounds in the first half, but the Braves were a shaky 8-36 from the field. Bradley’s Elijah Childs had eight rebounds and three blocks for the Braves.
There must have been something in the air tonight because the cold shooting affected the Tigers as well, as both teams started 0-5 from beyond the arc. Xavier Pinson finally sunk a three for the Tigers, and they extended their lead 12-5 halfway through the first. Bradley shot a dismal 0-12 from three in the first half and the Tigers weren’t much better, shooting 2-12. Xavier Pinson had both threes for Missouri.
Both the Tigers and Braves were quick to rack up team fouls- in large part to how physical the level of play was. The Braves picked up their 7th team foul following a Mark Smith and-one basket and Missouri was able to keep their short lead until the end of the half. The Tigers had a surplus of opportunities to extend their lead at the charity stripe, under the basket, and from beyond the arc, but weren’t able to do so because of poor shooting. At the half, the Tigers hung on to a 21-19 lead.
The second half turned out to be a nail-biter.
To begin play, Bradley went on a 6-0 run and retook the lead. Missouri wouldn’t back down though, as the Tigers and Braves exchanged blows early. Pinson stepped up for Missouri with a successful trip to the line, followed by another three pointer to give Missouri the lead once again.
Bradley finally hit from beyond the arc as Jayson Kent caught fire and Bradley carried a small lead heading into the second TV timeout of the half. Additionally, Dru Smith picked up his fourth personal foul with over ten minutes to go in the game, so Drew Buggs was asked to play a serious amount of minutes tonight.
Jeremiah Tilmon had a quiet first half, but helped keep the Tigers in the conversation, notching his first field goal halfway through the second. His presence seemingly came to life and Brave defenders struggled to corral him. Tilmon said that during the halftime break, Coach Martin made it clear that he was slacking. “I felt like I was getting out rebounded and Coach made it obvious I wasn’t playing as hard as I could be,” Tilmon said. Bradley remained the aggressor, however, and clung on to a one-point lead with under nine minutes.
With time dwindling, the Braves had the lead and threatened to run away with the game. Elijah Childs completed a big three point play to keep the Braves in front with five minutes remaining. Missouri desperately needed to go on an offensive run, but Bradley kept them in check.
With less then five minutes, Cuonzo Martin called a timeout down 50-42 to settle his guys down. Following that break, Mitchell Smith knocked down a jump shot, Dru Smith drew a foul on defense to give the ball back to Missouri, and Tilmon knocked down two free throws, cutting Bradley’s lead to just four.
Moments later, Mark Smith took a trip to the line with the Tigers down 53-49 with 53.1 seconds left in the game. Following two makes from the line, the Tigers only trailed by a bucket. Defensively, Missouri stood tall and recorded a huge stop. Now with the ball and a chance to tie or take the lead, the Tigers settled on a Mark Smith three, but he missed the front iron. Bradley came up with the rebound and was immediately sent to the line. All the Braves had to do was make both free throws and the game was most likely over. To make things interesting, Bradley missed the first of the one-and-one, and Dru Smith secured the rebound and found an outlet. The Tigers quickly pushed up court with just ten seconds remaining, still trailing by two points. With literally one second on the clock, Xavier Pinson found Jeremiah Tilmon under the rim where he finished a layup to tie the game and was fouled. The Tigers were going to the free throw line with a chance to take the lead with one second to go. Tilmon calmly drained it and Missouri was somehow winning by one. The last full second of play nearly took five minutes to wrap up, but Bradley ended up having .7 seconds to heave up a shot. It wasn’t meant to be. Against all odds, Missouri won this game 54-53 in the dying seconds.
Postgame, Jeremiah Tilmon walked through what was going on his head just before his game winning final free throw. “I was just telling myself to calm down,” Tilmon said. He explained that the only word that came to his mind was, routine.
Following the win, Head Coach Cuonzo Martin said, “I’m thankful to get the win. I thought they had a great game plan.” Coach said he thought his guys settled for shots during the first half, but he gave a lot of credit to Bradley’s defense. The Braves held the Tigers to just 25.4% shooting from the field, Missouri’s lowest all season.
Martin said that in the huddle just before the last play the message was to finish strong. “You don’t get these games back,” Martin explained. “We can’t have one foot out the door for the holidays, we have to finish our mission.” Missouri ultimately got the job done, though it wasn’t the prettiest of wins.
The Tigers open conference play against the Tennessee Volunteers next Wednesday.