ST. LOUIS — The Tigers and their fans partied Wednesday like it was 1999 — the last time Missouri recorded a win in the annual Braggin’ Rights game with Illinois. Just in time for the holidays, the Tigers snapped a nine-game losing streak against the Fighting Illini, winning 81-68.
“It was the worst Christmas of my life last year,” sophomore guard Kim English said. “Worst of my life. I cried walking out of that tunnel last year. But this is our team now. This isn’t nine other years. It’s the first win of many hopefully.”
English was a major force for the Tigers all night. He led all scorers with 24 points and logged a team-high 35 minutes. He was forced to pick up the slack with senior guards Zaire Taylor and J.T. Tiller under the weather. Taylor was battling flu-like symptoms and managed to play only four minutes. Tiller’s minutes dropped in the second half, and he finished the game on the bench.
But the Tigers had plenty of players ready to step in. In his first primetime close up, freshman guard Michael Dixon shined. He was second on the team with 16 points and played 28 minutes. As the Illini kept the game close, Dixon showed he was not afraid to step up and take the big shot.
“Mike played real well,” sophomore guard Marcus Denmon said. “I mean, he’s not an ordinary freshman. None of coach (Mike) Anderson’s freshman usually are because of the way they’re thrown into the fire early. And he came out and contributed and played really well.”
Even during the opening tipoff, the Tigers played with a sense of urgency that comes when you've lost nine straight to an opponent. In the blink of an eye, Missouri held a 7-2 lead over Illinois.
The game went back and forth the rest of the half. Just when it seemed the Tigers were gaining an edge, the Illini fired right back. With the score tied 28-28, Tiller hit a field goal that put Missouri back on top for good.
“J.T. and Zaire were hurt,” English said. “They said, ‘We’re not losing this game.’ J.T. was almost in tears in the locker room, saying, ‘I’m not losing this game four years in a row.’ And there was nothing else to say.”
As the game progressed, Illinois appeared to get flustered with Missouri’s constant pressure. On top of that, some questionable calls by the referees did not help calm the Illini. The Tigers took advantage of the frazzled Illinois team, forcing 22 turnovers and recording 10 steals.
But, Illinois kept pecking away at the Tigers’ lead. With 8:07 left in the second half, junior center Mike Tisdale sank a layup and drew a foul on the play. He made the free throw to narrow Missouri’s lead to 63-57. But that was as close as they would get to the Tigers.
With 3:33 left, Dixon put Missouri up 75-61 with a layup and subsequent free throw. It was then that the Missouri fans rose to their feet in anticipation of the inevitable. A two-handed dunk by junior forward Justin Safford a minute later put the exclamation point on a hard-fought win for the Tigers.
“We’re the ultimate team,” English said. “We don’t have any go-to guys. We’re just the ultimate team. Mike Dixon stepped up; (sophomore center) Steve Moore played amazing. We’re finally starting to figure out who we are.”