The Missouri Tigers welcomed their rival, No. 6 Illinois, to Mizzou Arena and delivered a gritty performance for their first victory over a team ranked in the Top 10 since 2014.
Both teams got off to a good start in the first half. There might not have been many fans in the arena, but the players provided all the energy needed. A quick-paced game that featured up-and-down fastbreak play had the game deadlocked at nine early.
With around 12 minutes to play in the half, Jeremiah Tilmon picked up his second foul, and in a close game, Cuonzo Martin had to figure out how he would defend the Illini star Kofi Cockburn without his best defender inside.
In a back and forth game that was tight all half, Mitchell Smith and Jordan Wilmore, for a short burst, did a workmanlike job defending the talented Cockburn. However, even as Cockburn was contained, Illinois was heating up behind their other star, Ayo Dosunmu.
The Tigers’ offensive attack was much more balanced, as it seemed like everyone on the floor was contributing their part. Dosunmu had 13 points on 5-5 shooting to lead the Illini as the game was still all knotted up at 25 with 7 minutes to play in the first.
As the half wound down, the Tigers began to separate from their rivals. When both teams headed to the locker room, the scoreboard read 49-41, advantage Tigers. That 8 point difference came almost entirely at the free-throw line as the Tigers were 100% on 16 attempts, and the Illini were just 9-17.
The Tigers and the Illini were efficient from the field shooting 54% and 56%, respectively. However, Mizzou’s strong performance at the line allowed them to lead for a majority of the first half and stretch that lead before intermission despite 15 from Dosunmu and 12 from freshman Andre Curbelo.
No one player stood above the others for the Tigers in the first, but they did have four players with more than nine points at the half, including 10 off the bench from perennial Braggin Rights performer and Illini killer, Javon Pickett.
When the second half began, neither team got off to a flying start. After the second media timeout, Illinois was unable to make a dent in the Tiger lead. With 11:56 to play the Tigers still led 57-51 and both teams were struggling from the field.
However, all that would change with around 10 minutes remaining. Still leading by 6, Cuonzo Martin’s team caught fire from the field and went on a 7-0 run capped by a deep Dru Smith three to take their biggest lead of the game.
With 9 minutes to play, the Missouri Tigers led their top-ranked rivals by 13 with a chance to step on their throats, but they didn’t capitalize. Illinois responded immediately with their own Dosunmu-powered run that cut the Tiger lead back to only seven.
The Tigers continued to struggle, and Illinois continued to chip away. With 4:28 to play, a Cockburn dunk made cut the Tiger lead to just 1, and with 3:18 left, Dosunmu would tie it. All the while, the Tigers were in the midst of a 6-minute scoring drought just desperately trying to hold their lead until the final buzzer.
After the game, Cuonzo Martin said, “When watching film, we knew the margin for error was very slim.” At this moment, that margin was razor thin, but the Tigers wouldn’t let the moment get the best of them.
Their scoreless stretch ended on a Xavier Pinson layup with under a minute left that put the Tigers up four. Illinois responded with a Kofi Cockburn dunk, but despite the basket counting, he was also called for a flagrant foul that allowed Dru Smith to move Mizzou’s lead back to three.
The Tigers wound the shot clock all the way down on the next possession and Kobe Brown missed a three as it expired. That left Illinois 10.9 seconds to erase a 3-point lead. They wouldn’t.
With 2.3 seconds left, Kobe Brown grabbed a missed Dosunmu 3 off the glass, and despite missing both free throws, the Tigers secured an 81-78 Braggin Rights victory, their third in a row.
After the game, Xavier Pinson said, “It wasn’t a pretty win, they came out and fought. They made sure it wasn’t easy.” He’s right, of course. It wasn’t easy, but this Tigers team got it done against a Top-10 team and added another quality victory to what looks to be shaping up to be a special season.