Jeremiah Tilmon had been option number one all season for the Tigers, but tonight Kentucky wasn’t going to let him beat them, “They were sending two at him every time, a couple of times it looked like he had 3 and four guys at him,” Dru Smith said after the game.
So with Kentucky doing everything in their power to stop Tilmon, the Tigers turned to their other senior leader, Dru Smith.
After a game in which two of his teammates scored 30+ points, Smith decided it was his turn to carry the load for the Tigers in a must-win game. With 26 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists, Smith’s all-around performance ensured the Tigers a 75-70 victory over a talented but struggling Kentucky team.
To open the game, the Tigers used a team-wide three-point barrage to give themselves a 13-point halftime lead. At the half, they were 7-11 and from beyond the arc, and seemed like they could find an open shooter on almost every play. However, when the second half started, that all changed.
Kentucky came out of the intermission on a 15-3 run that was capped off by a Brandon Boston, Jr. transition three. That explosion from the Wildcats left the Tigers looking for a response when their shots weren’t falling, and Dru Smith answered.
With Jeremiah Tilmon receiving doubles on almost every play, Dru Smith picked his teammate up in the form of 16 second-half points that included shooting 12-14 from the FT line. After the majority of scoring shifted from three-point shooting to FTs in the second half, Dru Smith said, “They were up in us a little more, and we did a good job of drawing fouls and getting to the line.” The Tigers certainly did that as they shot 17-22 in the second half at the charity stripe.
Despite fouling the Tigers 16 times in the second half, Kentucky never seemed to go away, always keeping the Tigers within striking distance. The man that seemed to be willing the Wildcats to not go away was transfer guard Davion Mintz. On the night, Mintz had 18 points, including four huge threes, and always seemed to answer with a bucket each time the Tigers tried to take a double-digit lead.
When push came to shove, it was the Tigers who just wanted it more down the stretch. After the final media timeout, the Tigers held the Wildcats to just 5 points in the final four minutes, ensuring their victory. “We stepped up to the plate and got stops at the end of the game,” Mark Smith said after the game. Smith also added 3 big threes after struggling recently from behind the arc.
Now the Tigers will move on to face SEC leader Alabama on Saturday as they look to continue to keep pace and chase the vaunted SEC crown.