Tigers survive Illinois, move to 12-0
By Kaveh Kaghazi
Leading 58-47 with 11 minutes to play, No. 8 Missouri looked to be on their way to another easy win.
Chants of “M-I-Z” rang through Scottrade Center in St. Louis as fans filling half the arena donned in black and gold watched their Tigers take control of the game.
But the “Braggin’ Rights” game would be a different story.
In less than five minutes, Missouri saw its 11-point lead evaporate. A 15-3 Illinois run made it 62-61, Illini, with seven minutes to play. Up to that point, the Tigers had yet to face anything resembling adversity. Through 11 games, Missouri’s average margin of victory was 27.7 points. The Illini (11-2) forced the Tigers into bad possessions, advancing their lead to 70-68 until a late Kim English 3-point play put Missouri on top, 73-70. The Tigers took control from there, churning out a hard-fought 78-74 victory in front of an electric crowd of 22,087.
“I’m proud of how these guys fought and kept themselves together to find a way to win,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said.
Ignited by the backcourt duo of Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon, Missouri (12-0) jumped out to 17-2 run in the first half en route to a 41-30 lead at halftime. Pressey and Dixon attacked the paint all night, each scoring 18 points. Coming off a career-high 30-points against William & Mary, Dixon stayed aggressive offensively, attempting 12 free throws.
But the point guards had trouble getting the Tiger offense in rhythm late in the game. Together, Pressey and Dixon turned the ball over three times and were held to a combined two assists in the second half. “We don’t want to play at warp speed all the time,” Haith said. “We have to run some offense and I thought we got a little bit out of character and that allowed Illinois to get back in the game.”
Illinois center Meyers Leonard Leonard was key in No. 24 Illinois’ late rally. He finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and two blocks. Pressey said after the game Leonard made it difficult for Missouri to get into the lane.
“When you’ve got a 7-1 monster down there like they do, you’ve got to be on your toes,” Pressey said.
MU senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe struggled defending the taller Leonard for most of the game. When Ratliffe picked up an early foul, Haith opted to go to backup center Steve Moore. Three blocks later, Moore helped spark the Tigers first half surge. But led by their own backup, Illinois made it interesting late. Sophomore guard Joseph Bertrand came off the bench to score 19 points, hitting all nine of his field goal attempts.
“We’re not going to blow every team out by 20,” Pressey said. “We just have to find a way to win these close ones and we did.”
Ratliffe came on strong late, scoring six points the game’s final three minutes, helping the Tigers seal the win. The 12-0 mark is Missouri’s best start since 1981-1982.
The Tigers survived Illinois for their third consecutive win in the “Braggin’ Rights” game even with their top two scorers struggling. Coming off his lowest point total of the season, senior guard Marcus Denmon had just eight points. English also had eight points and added eight rebounds. Thursday’s contest was the first time MU failed to score more than 80 points this season.
Missouri’s next action comes on Dec. 30 when the Tigers travel to Norfolk, Va. to take on the (6-6) Old Dominion Monarchs.