Missouri falls short after floundering first half in Braggin’ Rights game

Illinois won the annual St. Louis-based rivalry game for the fifth straight year, while Mizzou’s turnover woes continued.
Jeremiah Tilmon warms up before Saturday night's game against Illinois.

Just moments after receiving the most enthusiastically juxtaposed responses from Missouri and Illinois fans as his name was announced, Jeremiah Tilmon continued to fuel the fire to the newest narrative in the Braggin’ Rights rivalry by scoring the first bucket of the 2017 contest.

Then the game began.

Mizzou fell 70-64 to the Illinois Fighting Illini in the 37th annual Braggin’ Rights game Saturday night, as an offense that had averaged over 80 points per game went silent in front of a sellout crowd of 21,289 at St. Louis’ Scottrade Center.

“We found a way to not make it easy,” Illini head coach Brad Underwood said. “We got them on their heels with our defense. It was everything I expected and a little more.”

Led by 22 points from freshman Trent Frazier and 20 from junior Leron Black, this was Illinois’ fifth straight triumph in the annual game. For both Underwood and Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin, this was the first time coaching on the unique stage.

“I didn’t think we were really assertive or aggressive attacking,” Martin said. “Putting pressure on the big guys, we did that in the second half. I don’t know why we were hesitant or passive in the first half.”

Missouri fell short on a scrappy second-half comeback from down 20, but the Illini had seized control of the game from the beginning. An early 10-0 burst extended into a 19-3 run while a turnover-prone Missouri team picked up where it left off against Stephen F. Austin in that category — but not in the shooting column. The Tigers hit one of their first nine from deep, while 14 of their 21 turnovers came in the first 16 minutes.

“It seemed like we turned the ball over more than we shot,” senior Jordan Barnett said.

That isn’t far off; those 21 total turnovers equalled the 21 field goals the team made on the night. Illinois suffocated its former signee Tilmon and the other Missouri bigs in the paint. Tilmon finished with just seven points.

“We dug ourselves a hole,” Martin said.

Illinois fittingly ended perhaps its best half of the season with back-to-back 3s that turned Mizzou’s headache into a migraine. It was 42-22 at the break.

“By far, we played our best half defensively of the year,” Underwood said.

The heat in the rivalry resurfaced within seconds in the second half though, with five quick Missouri points and a technical foul on freshman Blake Harris. As the Tigers tried to mount a rally on the back of their own momentum, Harris seemed to represent the infuriating potential of Mizzou’s young team. He led the defense with a youthful passion but dribbled into turnovers in several crucial transition opportunities.

“[Harris] utilized his speed more than anything,” Martin said. “His energy was good. He set the tone for us in the second half. If I need to take him out, it’s often to settle him in, to gather himself.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the team just couldn’t find the bottom of the net, especially from beyond the arc. Mizzou finished the night 5 of 27 from downtown, led by a 3-for-12 3-point performance from its best shooter in senior Kassius Robertson.

“I thought we had some really good looks in the second half,” Martin said. “We settled for some threes the first half, but in the second half we missed some good shots.”

Still, the Tigers clawed to within six with as many minutes left to play. But with the game closer than it had been since it was 7-2, Illinois had all the answers down the stretch — freshman standout Mark Smith’s 3-point play with less than two minutes to go all but sealed it — and Mizzou still had none of its usual magic from deep. Two shots off the mark in the last 20 seconds, either of which could have finally narrowed the deficit to one possession, seemed a fitting way to finalize the defeat.

“We got a lot of good looks,” Robertson said. “It was just one of those days where stuff wasn’t dropping.”

Even in defeat, this young Mizzou team experienced the kind of raucous crowd it may have to deal with often on the road in SEC play, which starts Jan. 3 at South Carolina. This one wasn’t on the road, but the neutral site with rivalry implications proved an exciting challenge in itself.

“I love college basketball rivalries,” Underwood said. “And this one has been one of the best in the history of college basketball for many years.”

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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