Tiger defense, bench lift Missouri to Braggin’ Rights win

Missouri has won three games in a row for the first time all season.

ST. LOUIS –– Midway through the first half, with the Tigers facing their largest deficit of the game, sophomore Xavier Pinson made his first of many key shots in Missouri’s 63-56 win over Illinois. As the shot clock expired, Pinson sunk a 3-pointer from well beyond the arc, sparking a 34-14 run that primarily featured bench production and stifling defense.

Pinson, the Illinois native, finished with four rebounds, two assists and 14 of Missouri’s 31 points off the bench. Missouri’s other scoring contributor off the bench was sophomore Javon Pickett, who finished with 17 points and six rebounds. Both players have started games for the Tigers, but coach Cuonzo Martin said “they don’t skip a beat” when coming off the bench.

“Whatever they need me to do, I have to go out there and be able to do it,” Pickett said. “Not really worrying about coming off of the bench or starting, just making sure that I go out there and execute the plays. Do the little things that I have to do to help the team win.”

Missouri’s frontcourt knew it had a challenge against Illinois. Coming into the game, the Illini led the nation in rebounding margin at 14 per game. Martin challenged his team before the game and said, “if they’re the best rebounding team, then let’s find out.”

The Tigers held their own on the glass. They outrebounded the Illini by four and limited 7-foot Kofi Cockburn, the nation’s eighth leading offensive rebounder entering Saturday, to just two rebounds and none on the offensive end.

Redshirt junior Mitchell Smith played a team-high 35 minutes, grabbed six rebounds and made multiple key defensive stops down the stretch.

“That’s not easy,” Martin said. “But again, credit goes to the big guys for embracing that challenge. Even Mitch, going against Kofi sometimes, probably giving up 50 pounds, did a good job of moving his feet and high hands.”

In the 2018 Braggin’ Rights game, Illinois guard Trent Frazier torched the Tigers for 28 points. Missouri held him to one field goal on Saturday.

“When you have size on him, challenge the shot, [you] then take your chance with him putting the ball on the floor,” Martin said. “Then, when he puts the ball on the floor, you can corral him. If you let him catch and shoot rhythm shots, it can be a long night.”

Before the game, Mark Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon were expected to be the story. When Smith, an Illinois transfer, and Tilmon, a former Illinois commit, were introduced as starters, boos echoed across the Enterprise Center. Smith was held scoreless and Tilmon appeared to be bothered by a foot injury throughout the contest. For most of the Missouri players with Illinois ties, the win meant more than a regular game.

“Being from Illinois is a good thing, but across our chest is Mizzou,” Pinson said.

Edited by Wilson Moore | wmoore@themaneater.com

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