The Missouri basketball team defeated the Illinois Fighting Illini for the second year in a row with a 75-64 victory Wednesday at the Scottrade Center in Saint Louis.
But the final tally is actually not a good indication of how close this game actually was. Both teams battled back and forth until junior Marcus Denmon stole the ball from Illinois’ Brandon Paul and fed it to Ricardo Ratliffe who laid it in to extend Missouri’s lead to 62-58 with just under a minute left.
“I knew that they would be trying to get the ball to McCamey, like I said, he was the head of their basketball team and the key to a lot of the things they do offensively,” Denmon said. “I knew they were going to pass it and I just got the steal. Then, my big man, Ricardo, ran the floor well and I just passed it to him because you always gotta reward the big men for running the floor and he finished. That was a big play.”
The junior guard has emerged as one of the team’s leaders and has been the deciding factor in two of the team’s victories this season.
“Got to give a lot of credit to Marcus, I mean he’s done it in two very important games, two very important games, and he’s one of our leaders out there on the floor so, you gotta expect the leaders to make plays like that,” junior Laurence Bowers said. “I thought that was something that we were lacking coming into this game. He said it and he made a big play for us. So, whenever your leader steps up and does that, it just becomes contagious. I just thought everyone gave their best defensive effort and we came up with the win.”
Denmon finished the night with a team-high 15 points, 12 of which came in the second half.
Illinois responded to Ratliffe’s layup 10 seconds later with a 3-pointer to cut Missouri’s lead to 1. On the following play, however, the Tigers were able to ice the game when Michael Dixon found Bowers down court for what was ultimately a 4-point play. Bowers not only hit the layup, but was also rewarded with two free throws because Illinois’ Mike Tisdale pushed him from behind, an intentional foul.
“When they made the three I didn’t panic, I just saw the opportunity to beat everybody down the floor so I just took off,” Bowers said. “Give credit to my teammates, they found me and I thought that was a real big play of the game and we were fortunate.”
Denmon, Dixon and Matt Pressey all hit free throws to help Missouri pull away in the final seconds of the game.
In his final Busch Braggin’ Rights game, Bloomington, Illinois-native Justin Safford put up 11 points, 9 of which came in the opening minutes of the second half.
“This is a game every year I mark on my calendar. It’s an important game to me as well as my teammates,” Safford said. “In the first half, coach talked to me, he said that I was kind of forcing it, and of course I was in foul trouble too so in the second half I just went out there and really played.”
With the win, Missouri improves to 11-1, their best start since the 1991-’92 season. That team finished 21-9 overall, but went just 8-6 within the conference.
The Tigers' next game is Dec. 27 against Northern Illinois at Mizzou Arena.