'My five star': Izzo touts Tillman for defensive player of the year for job guarding Garza
East Lansing — The stat line hardly jumped out after the game, but that didn’t minimize the impact Xavier Tillman had on Tuesday night.
Rocket Watts and Cassius Winston poured in the points and Aaron Henry did a little bit of everything in No. 24 Michigan State’s 78-70 victory over No. 18 Iowa at the Breslin Center. But it was the play of Tillman, especially in the second half, that truly made the difference.
“Xavier was the man in the second half,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
He had to be the man in the second half because in the first half, Tillman played only 4:48 after picking up two quick fouls. That allowed Iowa big man Luka Garza, one of the favorites to win Big Ten Player of the Year, free reign on the block. He scored 12 of his 20 points in the opening 20 minutes and the Hawkeyes controlled the game.
That all changed in the second half.
Tillman wanted to check Garza, and the second half the Hawkeyes star was frustrated. As Iowa’s offensive options were limited, Tillman’s teammates started putting the ball in the basket.
“I'm telling you, yes, I am pushing him for defensive player of the year,” Izzo said of Tillman. “He has defended so well all year long. … He just wanted (Garza) in the second half. We didn't put him on him in the first half because we didn't want him in foul trouble. Then he gets a foul setting a screen and the other one, I don't know, I questioned it. I just thought Xavier said to himself, ‘I don't want to go out this way’ and he willed us. Even though all the other guys made all the plays and they did make plays, but there is no question that he was my five star.”
Tillman finished with six points, six rebounds and a pair of blocks. The second block came on Garza in the final minutes, creating an emotional scream from Tillman. It gave the junior 147 career blocks, moving him past Matt Costello for the most in program history.
“I didn’t know that,” Tillman said of the record. “It’s funny I yelled like that, but I was just locked into the game and I knew it was such a big play. I think we just scored and we needed a big stop and I was the one to get the stop, so I was excited.”
Tillman relished the idea of trying to limit Garza, and in the second half, he did exactly that.
“ I was excited for this matchup,” Tillman said. “Personally, I was disappointed I was in foul trouble in the first half, but I was really excited about this matchup just because he's a good player. I wanted to see how I matched up against him. I think I did pretty well when I had my opportunities on him.”
It was a big night all around for Tillman, who played for the first time with the name “Tillman Sr.” on the back of his No. 23 jersey.
Tillman and his wife, Tamia, welcomed Xavier Jr. early on the morning of Feb. 17. The youngest Tilman weighed in at 7 pounds, 8 ounces and measured at 20 ¾ inches. Afterward, Xavier Tillman posted on Instagram about his son, saying, “I will shape you in my image, you shall be loved, respected, and cherished. … I love you Xavier Justis Tillman Jr. Welcome to the world.”
It was the second game Tillman played since his son was born. At Nebraska last week, he did not have the “Sr.” added to his black road uniform yet. Tuesday’s game was the first his uniform has read “Tillman Sr.”
Xavier Jr. is the second child for Tillman and his wife, who were married last summer. Their daughter, Ayanna, is 3 years old.
Afterward Tillman was eager to get back to his family, especially Xavier Jr.
“It's great,” Tillman said of the new addition to his uniform and his family. “It’s definitely different and it’s great. I like it a lot. To have somebody that, hopefully, I can make him a prodigy of me or just be the type of person that I am, that’s my goal, but I’m excited. I want to go home. I want to see him.”