Suffocating Illinois defense hands Mizzou fifth-straight Braggin -

Suffocating Illinois defense hands Mizzou fifth-straight Braggin' Rights loss

Posted: Updated:
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
ST. LOUIS, Mo. ( -

Watching Missouri on offense in the first half of Saturday’s annual Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois, it was difficult to keep from muttering ‘What are they doing?’ on an endless loop.

Passing carelessly with nobody open. Picking up the dribble without a plan for where to go next with the basketball. Throwing it aimlessly to anyone wearing an orange jersey.

Mizzou was in the Christmas spirit, giving away one possession after another until the deficit became insurmountable.

The Tigers looked altogether surprised by and unprepared for the Illini’s defensive discipline and aggression from the jump of Saturday’s rivalry game at Scottrade Center. Missouri turned the ball over 16 times in the opening half, which saw Illinois race unimpeded to a 42-22 lead it would never fully surrender. Despite experience this season against pressure defenses like the one employed by Illinois’ Brad Underwood, the Tigers let the Illini bully them into early submission.

“I thought they set the tone early in the first half, and it showed,” Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin said. “We dug ourselves a hole, and it was a tough one to get out of.”

Though the heart and hustle came alive for Missouri in the second half, it wasn’t enough to overcome their disastrous start, as Mizzou fell to Illinois for the fifth straight year, 70-64.

While credit goes to the Illini for forcing the issue—Underwood was thoroughly pleased with his group’s first-half defense—there’s no denying the Tigers came out of the gate looking flatter than a pancake.

“It was about us,” Kassius Robertson said of Missouri’s first-half woes. “We—for some reason—didn’t come out with the energy we did in the second half. Why? I can’t tell you. But we’re going to get that fixed.”

The lack of a point guard who can consistently and confidently lead the offense against pressure stands out the main blemish on Mizzou’s season at the conclusion of the non-conference schedule. An epic collapse against West Virginia’s press defense led to a heartbreaking loss in late November, while Stephen F. Austin nearly upended Missouri with similar tactics this past Tuesday.

Saturday, turnover troubles had all but buried the Tigers before halftime. The point guards—Blake Harris, Jordan Geist and Terrence Phillips—combined for 11 giveaways in the game.

Jordan Barnett quipped, “It seemed like we turned the ball over more than we shot it.” Robertson stated firmly that 16 first-half turnovers “can never happen again,” and he referred to the Tigers’ 21 turnovers for the game as “unacceptable.”

“We have to find some way to cut down on those, and I think that will make us a much better team,” Robertson added.

So the problem is not a secret. Its solution appears to be one.

“I think some of the guys may have been rattled for whatever reason, and the crowd may have had something to do with that,” Barnett said. “We just can’t let that happen. When guys are nervous, I think it’s more so on me and ‘Kash’ (Robertson) as leaders to talk to them and get them to calm down.”

Even considering the ball-handling woes, Missouri had the opportunity to shoot its way back into the game, as Illinois left the door open by missing eight second-half free throws.

Inexplicably, the typically smooth-stroking Tigers went dormant.

Mizzou shot 21 of 55 (38.2%) from the floor—well below its 49.2% season-average coming into the game. And for a team that has shot the ball from deep range so effectively on the season (39.7%), Missouri couldn’t buy a triple Saturday. The Tigers went a ghastly 5 for 27 (18.5%) from three-point range.

Previously a 42.7% three-point shooter, Robertson was just 3 of 12 from deep on Saturday. He scored a team-high 22 points by pushing the ball into the paint in the second half. Missouri’s only other solid contributor offensively, Barnett scored 19 including 2 of 6 from beyond the arc. The rest of the Tigers went 0 for 9 from deep range.

“We did a good job picking our spots, and looks weren’t going down,” Robertson said.

In addition to turnovers and poor outside shooting, Cuonzo Martin cited quiet games from big men Jontay Porter (zero points, 5 rebounds) and Kevin Puryear (6 points, 3 rebounds) as problematic for the Tigers. With the exception of former Illinois commit Jeremiah Tilmon somehow managing to stay out of foul trouble, Saturday night didn't go at all as planned for the black and gold.

Missouri’s disappointing showing in the revitalized Braggin’ Rights rivalry will undoubtedly sting for the Tiger faithful—who were perhaps a tad overconfident coming into this game—until their next shot at redemption a year from now. But if the Tigers can learn some lessons from Saturday's painful loss by the time SEC play opens up in early January, they might still have plenty to brag about when March rolls around.

Powered by Frankly