FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Cuonzo Martin was known as a physical player when he played at Purdue in the early 1990s. His Missouri Tigers sure looked like one of his teams on Saturday.
The No. 12 Tigers gritted their way to a bruising win at Arkansas, 81-68, with old-school post play and hard challenges.
“Our DNA is defense,” Martin said. “You’ve got to have some guys in that locker room that have some grit to them, some toughness to them.”
Jeremiah Tilmon, Missouri’s 6-foot-10, 260-pound center, found life on the inside easy against undermanned Arkansas. He scored a career-high 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds as the Razorbacks had no one to answer him on the block.
Arkansas (9-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) was without Justin Smith, their usual starting interior player, after Smith injured his ankle in Wednesday’s win at Auburn. The team announced he would miss three to six weeks after surgery. The missing 11.6 points and 7.1 rebounds he averaged were noticeable.
Missouri (7-1, 1-1) outrebounded Arkansas 51-36, outscored the Razorbacks 34-22 in the paint, and forced them into 27% shooting from the field. Every penetration attempt by Arkansas guards and wings was met with a body as 57 fouls were whistled over the 40 minutes.
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman had seen enough as Missouri stretched its lead to double digits during the final 10 minutes. Musselman was ejected after arguing with the officials at the under-four-minute timeout following a stretch of the game’s most physical play.
The Razorbacks missed 22 layups as Missouri’s plan to force Arkansas away from the 3-point line to the inside worked.
“When they were coming in, we were trying to make sure we had our hands up and jumping with them. Just contesting the shots, that was our main thing,” Tilmon said.
Missouri allowed Arkansas to stay close for most of the game as the Tigers committed 21 turnovers, though Arkansas managed to turn those into just 15 points. The Razorbacks went 4:53 without a field goal midway through the second half, finally giving Missouri enough of an edge to build its lead to double digits into the under-eight media timeout.
Martin was frustrated by the turnovers, which were only barely down from the 24 the Tigers had in Wednesday’s loss to No. 7 Tennessee. It was about the only thing he didn’t care for on Saturday, though.
“The game against Tennessee, that was not like us at all,” Martin said. “This. This is what we look like.”
Tilmon was joined in double figures by Xavier Pinson (23) and Mark Smith (11). JD Notae and Moses Moody led Arkansas in scoring with 19 and 18 points, but needed a combined 33 field-goal attempts to reach those marks.
An early alley-oop from Pinson to Tilmon set the stage. It’s a combination Martin specifically called out as important after the game, too.
“If he (Tilmon) gets to that point where he demands the ball every time down, we’re a different level of team,” Martin said.
Arkansas big man Conor Vanover had his worst game of the season, often with Tilmon guarding him. The 7-foot-3 Vanover was 0 for 11 from the floor, scoring all four of his points from the line.
Missouri remains the surprise of the year in the SEC, leveling its record in league play after the loss to Tennessee on Wednesday. The Tigers were picked to finish 10th after a 15-16 record last year.
Arkansas, which finished with the same SEC record as Missouri last year, remains in excellent NCAA Tournament position and should stay on the cusp of the Top 25.
Missouri will play a second straight game on the road, Wednesday at Mississippi State.
Arkansas is in the midst of its toughest stretch of the year as the Razorbacks next travel to Knoxville on Wednesday to play No. 7 Tennessee.