Another year of braggin’: Missouri’s dominant second half secures rivalry win over Illinois

The Tigers have now won back-to-back Braggin’ Rights games, and 14 in the series.

ST. LOUIS — Missouri spent 16 minutes trailing Illinois in the opening half of Braggin’ Rights.

It was only by a handful of points, but on an unfamiliar court in a loud environment — and for a team that’s averaged 14.6 turnovers per game — it would have been easy for the Tigers to let a comeback slip out of reach.

Dru Smith wasn’t going to let that happen.

In the midst of a 13-4 run, the junior sunk Missouri’s first free throws of the game to give the Tigers their first lead. Then, after a jumper by Ayo Dosunmu, Smith made another pair at the charity stripe.

After a Smith triple with just over a minute remaining in the first half, Missouri had a 3-point lead going into the locker room, and it didn’t look back.

“Dru, that’s a person you like to have on your team,” sophomore Javon Pickett said.

Missouri (6-4) would go on to have a dominant second half, beating Illinois (8-4) 63-56 in the 2019 edition of Braggin’ Rights. While the Tigers still trail 25-14 in the overall series, it was their second consecutive win after beating the Illini 79-63 last year. Smith led with 19 points, Pickett had 17 and Xavier Pinson had 14.

Pickett and Pinson both came off the bench for Missouri, helping the Tigers outscore the Illini 31-10 in bench points.

“It doesn’t matter if you come off the bench or start, when coach calls your name you gotta be ready no matter when the situation is,” Pinson said. “We all came here ready to play.”

Coach Cuonzo Martin praised the pair of sophomores — both from Illinois — for their on-court dynamic and leadership following the game.

“It flows when they’re on the court,” he said. “They don’t skip a beat.”

The Missouri side of Enterprise Center was loud the entire second half, with an 8-0 run midway through the period pushing the Tigers’ lead to 14 — their highest of the game.

Perhaps the most electrifying moment of the entire game was when junior Jeremiah Tilmon slammed home a dunk around the 8-minute mark. He fouled out not long after, having only played 16 minutes and grabbing a single block and a steal.

Martin mentioned after the game that Tilmon had been questionable due to a foot injury, but said he’d “be fine.”

Illinois managed to pull back within 5 points near the end of the game, but Missouri’s defense held strong and its offense powered back on free throws by Pinson, Smith and Pickett.

By the end of the game, Missouri had pulled away in most of the stat categories after being neck-and-neck with Illinois at halftime. The Tigers lead in field goal percentage (43%), 3-point percentage (36%), rebounds (36) and steals (10).

However, the Tigers failed to win the turnover margin, giving up the ball 19 times to Illinois’ 17. Missouri had kept its turnovers relatively low for most of the game, but gave the ball up eight times in the final seven minutes.

“[Illinois is] a good team,” Martin said. “They forced us. You don’t get to this point and not be good. Both teams are good. Somebody is coming out on top every year.”

With conference play not far away, Martin also talked briefly about his team’s prospects following a win against an Illinois team that beat No. 5 Michigan on Dec. 11.

“If we’re healthy enough, I think we’re as good as any team,” he said. “When you go into SEC play, and I’ve said it to our guys before, you have a chance to be as good as anybody. Again, barring any major injuries and we stick to the script, we have a chance to be as good as anybody in the league.”

Missouri has an eight-day break before returning to Mizzou Arena to play Chicago State (4-9) on at 7 p.m. CST on Dec. 30.

Edited by Wilson Moore | wmoore@themaneater.com

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