Christmas is always better for Mizzou Nation with a win in Braggin’ Rights. Cuonzo Martin said so himself.
The Tiger’s 63-56 win Saturday marked the second straight win over Illinois, a second straight Merry Christmas for the program and its fans.
The Tigers outshot Illinois. They outrebounded Illinois. And when it came down to it, Missouri out-physicaled a very physical Illinois.
That might seem difficult to believe, with Illinois rolling out the enormous presence of Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvilli. They were both individually outrebounded by Mark Smith, Javon Pickett and Dru Smith.
Smith and Pickett were the biggest contributors on the scoreboard for Missouri, finishing with 19 and 17 points, respectively.
The Tigers led initially 3-2, and then trailed almost the entirety of the first half. It was a grind, and to the casual viewer, it may very well have looked ugly. Not to a coach like Cuonzo Martin, who was pleased with the defensive effort on Cockburn, who had just one first half point.
Dru Smith and Javon Pickett guided Missouri’s offensive output to keep pace with the Illini, and Missouri pulled ahead 26-23 at halftime with a pair of free throws from Smith.
Cockburn woke up in the second half, and outdueled his counterpart, Jeremiah Tilmon. Tilmon finished with just four points, and fouled out with 4:29 left in the second half. His production in the frontcourt, however, was sufficiently supplanted by Mitchell Smith, who was entrusted by Martin to play 35 minutes, a high for both teams.
Smith’s defense was notable throughout the game, helping stifle the talented Illinois frontcourt.
The defense was great, but Missouri was, and this may be shocking, not lighting it up from three. With Ayo Dosunmu and Cockburn playing well, the Tigers needed another answer offensively.
Enter Xavier Pinson. After just three first half points, Pinson sprung to life, helping fuel a 19-9 run out of halftime to build a 45-33 lead.
Pinson scored seven in a row at one point, two of the buckets coming off tip-ins at the rim. He was aided by another strong performance by Javon Pickett, the Belleville, IL native. Pickett was specifically singled out as the difference in the game by Illinois coach Brad Underwood.
“He was tremendous,” Underwood said. “He was the difference in the game. In the second half, we had five or six stops, and they had five or six offensive rebounds. It looked like everytime I turned around, it was Pickett.”
There was anticipation on the orange side of the building of a second half run, but it never came. The Missouri defense was stingy, and Illinois’ guards failed to produce. Trent Frazier was smothered for most of the game, finishing with just five points.
The Tigers held a double digit lead from 11:50 in the second half until a free throw by Cockburn got the deficit to nine with 2:59 left.
Illinois ramped up its pressure, and there were a few points that might have rattled some nerves of Missouri fans. Xavier Pinson was called for travelling twice in his own end. With 59 seconds left, Dosonmu nailed a jumper to cut the deficit to 57-52.
Missouri struggled to break the press, but it did make its free throws to seal the game. Smith and Pinson knocked down their shots from the charity stripe, and time ran out for the Illini.
After Charleston Southern, it would have been difficult to blame fans for panicking. Look at where this team is now. Three straight wins over Temple, Southern Illinois and now the Illini have restored some momentum that the team desperately needed.
If Missouri wins against Chicago State next Monday, and it most certainly should, it will end non-conference play at 8-4, but with crucial momentum and a blueprint for grinding out wins in the SEC.
For now, it’s time to celebrate the holidays. And they feel a hell of a lot better with a win in St. Louis.