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Illinois swarms Mizzou early, holds on for 70-64 win

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The Tigers were lifeless in the first half and couldn’t shoot well enough to come back all the way.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri has improved drastically since last season, surpassing its 2016-17 win total in only 12 games. As a result, Mizzou fans had lofty expectations heading into this year’s Braggin’ Rights game. A Tiger win was all but certain — the only question was how many points they would win by.

Instead, Mizzou (10-3) found itself down 20 at halftime. Missouri battled back in the second half, cutting the lead to as few as six points, but eventually fell to Illinois, 70-64.

It’s no secret: Missouri’s biggest weakness is taking care of the ball. The Tigers have been able to get by largely on the strength of incredible 3-point shooting. When those shots aren’t falling, however, they find themselves in trouble.

That finally happened on Saturday night, and the Tigers just weren’t able to make up the scoring elsewhere. They couldn’t penetrate past the perimeter, and despite their size they found difficulty finishing around the rim once they got there.

“It seemed like we turned the ball over more than we shot,” Jordan Barnett said. He was almost right. The Tigers turned the ball over 21 times for the game and made just 21 field goals.

Illinois (9-5) came out the more energetic team, and it wasn’t even close. The Illini out-hustled Missouri and used relentless pressure to pester the Tigers into 16 turnovers in the first half alone. The Mizzou offense was overwhelmed and reduced to a bunch of standing around and dribbling nowhere.

The Scottrade Center was split about 50-50 with Missouri and Illinois fans, but the way the Tigers played quickly made it sound like a home game for the Illini.

“I think it did,” Barnett said when asked if the hostile environment had an impact on Mizzou’s performance. “I think some of the guys may have been rattled for whatever reason. The crowd may have had something to do with that. There were a lot of unforced errors in that first half.”

Loud boos rained down from the orange-shirted fans in the crowd as Jeremiah Tilmon’s name was announced before tipoff. The Missouri freshman notoriously de-committed from Illinois before taking his talents to Columbia, and the Illini faithful let him hear just how they felt about it.

When he received a pass on the opening possession of the game, the jeers only continued. Tilmon responded by calmly establishing position in the paint before scoring on a layup.

Missouri secured the first points of the game, but the Illini ripped off a quick 10-0 run. Mark Smith and Leron Black capitalized off of three Tiger turnovers by scoring five points each during the stretch.

Illinois went on to outscore Missouri 32-20 over the next 15 minutes and went into halftime with a commanding 20-point lead.

“I just didn’t think we were very assertive or very aggressive early,” Cuonzo Martin said. “I don’t know why we looked hesitant or passive in the first half.”

To start the second half, Kassius Robertson fought his way to the paint and managed to finish a layup through a foul for the and-1. Blake Harris followed it up with a quick steal and two handed dunk, but was hit for a technical immediately after for taunting.

“I wasn’t disappointed at all,” Martin said when asked about subbing Harris out. “I just took him out to settle him a little bit. I thought his energy was good, he kind of set the tone for us in the second half.”

Two Robertson free throws cut the lead to 56-50 with 6:21 remaining, but Leron Black’s 3-pointer stretched the lead back to 10 with under five left, but to Mizzou’s credit, the Tigers kept fighting. A short Kevin Puryear jumper made it 66-62 with 25 seconds left, but Trent Frazier responded with two free throws, and when Mizzou couldn’t convert on its next possession, that was that.

The Mizzou backcourt had arguably its worst game of the season. Harris, Jordan Geist, and Terrence Phillips combined for just 10 points (all from Harris) on 4-for-12 shooting, with just four assists to 10 turnovers. The Tigers didn’t perform much better overall, shooting a paltry 38 percent from the field and 19 percent from deep. Robertson was just 3-for-12 from long range, and the rest of the team was worse (2-for-15).

Long-term, Harris has to be the answer from here. Geist just can’t handle the pressure that upper-tier athletes can apply, and showed it tonight as he turning it over four times in only seven minutes. Phillips is a defensively liability, and hasn’t offered much offensively either.

Barnett, a St. Louis native, put forth another strong showing in his homecoming with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Robertson did score 22, as well, on 7-for-18 shooting. They didn’t get enough help.

“We, for some reason, didn’t come out with the energy we did in the second half,” Robertson said. “Why? I can’t tell you, but we’re gonna get that fixed. You get down in SEC play early, it’s gonna be really hard to come back.”

The Tigers are done for 2017 and will start SEC play at South Carolina on January 3.