Missouri hasn’t done a great job of making opponents play the way the Tigers’ want to play this season. Especially in the two losses against Butler and Oklahoma during the Hall of Fame Classic, Missouri struggled to slow down the pace and force opponents to beat them in a hard-nosed endeavor.
But against Illinois in the annual Braggin’ Rights matchup Saturday, the Tigers forced the Illini to play their game.
Missouri’s grueling pace and defense usually makes games visually unappealing, and that’s what this one was for most of the first half. Neither team went on extended scoring runs until Illinois opened up a 19-13 lead with 8:26 left in the first half. But then, thanks in part to an immaculate 10-point burst by Dru Smith, the Tigers went on a 26-9 run to go up 39-28 just over five minutes into the second half, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish as they won 63-56.
On paper, Illinois was the better team. There’s no doubt about that. The Illini averaged 81 points a game coming in. They were the best rebounding team in the nation with a plus-14 rebound differential. They deploy a probable first-round NBA draft pick in Ayo Dosunmu as well as one of the most imposing freshman in the country in big man Kofi Cockburn. Trent Frazier had been a thorn in Missouri’s side in the previous two Braggin’ Rights games, pouring in 22 points in 2017 and 28 in 2018.
Add in the fact that Jeremiah Tilmon would eventually score just four points while playing on a hobbled leg and in foul trouble and Mark Smith would be held scoreless, and you’d think Illinois would take care of the Tigers pretty handily.
But instead, Missouri did what Cuonzo Martin’s teams are known to do.
The Tigers battled. They gritted their teeth, got into their low defensive stances and forced their opponents to play the way Missouri wants to play.
In the steals battle, the Tigers beat the Illini 10-7. In 3-point shooting, Missouri made 5 of 14 to Illinois’ 2 of 14. The Tigers held the Illini to just 56 points, 25 below its season average. And just to show Missouri could beat Illinois at its own game, too, the Tigers ended the game plus-4 in total rebounds and plus-1 on the offensive boards.
It wasn’t just that Missouri beat Illinois. The Tigers did it on the backs of players who probably weren’t considered in the “players to watch” category prior to the game.
Javon Pickett recorded 17 points and six rebounds off the bench. He hit two threes early in the first half to keep Missouri in the game when shots weren’t falling, and his constant presence of mind to follow shots and drive into the paint led to a number of successful second-chance opportunities.
Mitchell Smith managed just four points, but he grabbed six boards and played excellent defense. Outside of a couple of rather unathletic miscues, Smith played about as well as Martin could have hoped considering the bigs Illinois threw at him. Smith was in Giorgi Bezhanishvili’s face all day, causing a couple of travels and drawing fouls, and the charge he drew on Bezhanishvili in the second half led to the biggest show of emotion from any Tiger all game.
Reed Nikko didn’t have a great game statistically, but that’s not where his production usually comes from, anyway. Whenever Tilmon went to the bench due to foul trouble throughout the game, Cockburn had his opportunities to turn up the pressure. But instead, Nikko led the charge as Missouri played nearly perfect defense on Cockburn, constantly doubling, providing help defense and boxing out as he was held to 13 points on 3 of 9 shooting and grabbed just two rebounds — despite standing 7-feet tall.
It wasn’t a pretty game. Braggin’ Rights rarely is, because a bitter rivalry between neighboring state schools creates chippy, in-your-face ballgames.
But ugly wins are what the Tigers thrive on, and in beating the Illini on Saturday, Missouri played its hard-nosed style to perfection.