There was a sequence midway through the first half that summed all of this up. Sean East II took a beautiful pass from freshman Anthony Robinson II at the top of the key. Underneath the basket, East didn’t have a clean look, so making the right decision, he dished the ball out to Curt Lewis who was positioned in the corner. Lewis with a wide-open opportunity fired away the 3-ball and it bounced off the rim resulting Missouri’s 18th miss to that point.
This led to a transition bucket for Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins bucket on the other end increasing the Fighting Illini’s lead to 35-18 with still about seven minutes to play in the first half. That’s the kind of night it was for Missouri in its 95-75 loss to No. 13 Illinois.
It would be wise to think that heading into this game after losing at the Allen Fieldhouse by nine points and just six to a Seton Hall team that just beat the defending National Champs UConn a few days ago, that the Tigers would come into the annual Braggin’ Rights game with some moxie, especially after winning four of the previous five against Brad Underwood’s squad. That never came to fruition, in fact it was the exact opposite.
In contrast to last year’s matchup where Mizzou blew the doors off of Illinois early in a 93-71 victory, it was Illinois that came out hot shooting 50% through the first five minutes of play behind Hawkins, and Quincy Guerrier firing away from behind the arc while Terrance Shannon Jr. was able to capitalize on fast break and and-one opportunities.
With Mizzou unable to knock down anything early on it left the Tigers in a state of playing catchup. In the first half alone where the Tigers went into the locker room down 49-24, they shot 24% from the field, 1-of-17 from behind the arc and uncharacteristically just 60% from the free throw line. After the 12-minute mark, the Tigers never closed the gap to within double-digits again on its way to its worse loss since the 28-point thumping Kansas delivered last season.
“I think the game was over at halftime to be honest,” Guerrier said.
A second half spurt was a little too late as Mizzou found some sort of offense in the second half. It came from the Tigers only silver linings, Sean East II and freshman Trent Pierce, who went on a personal 5-0 run himself in the opening minutes of the first half to close the deficit to…22. The Tigers did in fact outscore Illinois 49-48 in the second half and the shooting did improve as the MU shot 59% from the field and 50% from behind arc.
“It’s just the tale of two halves,” Gates said.
Pierce was inserted into the started lineup after Aidan Shaw occupied the spot along with East, Nick Honor, Noah Carter, and Tamar Bates.
“Trent earned that spot, so congratulations to him,” Dennis Gates said. “I thought he had a solid performance. I’m definitely looking forward to the growth that he’ll have for the remainder of the season.”
He finished with 12 points and four boards and the best plus-minus with a negative four. Only Mabor Majak had better with a positive five.
“I think I played really well going out there in my first game starting,” Pierce said. “I think going into the game I was looking to play physical and play hard and I went out there and did that.”
His scoring total was behind East. The heart and soul of this team this year finished with 19 points on 8-17 shooting. Anthony Robinson II heated up in the second half with five rebounds and relentlessly attacking the basket.
Meanwhile Carter, Honor, and Vanover, veterans you would expect to show up in big games combined for just 12 points on the night.
“I think when you see Connor Vanover, who consistently has made shots throughout his career, they we’re wide open,” Gates said. “you can’t draw up an even better play for those wide-open three’s.”
The Illini dominated with just a trio of players, but effectively. Shannon and Guerrier combined for 58 points and 19 rebounds while Hawkins tallied 15 of his own to go along with seven boards.
After three games on the neutral sites/road, Mizzou falls to 7-5 after looking promising against Wichita State, which seems now forever ago. The Tigers schedule has been tough, but Gates wants the team to gain lessons from playing what he calls NCAA Tournament type teams.
“We just hadn’t in this non-conference been able to take advantage of playing ranked opponents and coming away with a win,” Gates said. “I truly believe that we have been going in the right direction. I’m not going to rip things a part or makes these guys feel like something’s wrong with them. It’s a long season.”
The Tigers return to the comfy confines of Mizzou Arena on Dec. 30 to take on Central Arkansas. The Bears are 3-10 on the season and will face No. 7 Oklahoma before coming to Columbia.