For the fourth time this season, Missouri faced their “first test” of the season. The first three times the Tigers were “tested” they won in such convincing fashion that the opposition was flat out dismissed as invalid. This time, that was not the case. This time, Missouri finally faced the test all the critics were waiting for, and they passed, beating Illinois 78-74 to move to 12-0.
It wasn’t the prettiest win in the world, and last 12 minutes of the game brought up plenty of concerns, but Missouri still won. They won a game where their two highest scorers, Marcus Denmon and Kim English, combined for 16 points. They won a game where they shot 44% from the field, eight percentage points below their season average. They won a game despite regressing back to the selfish offensive play that ruined them last season.
That last thing is, unfortunately, my big take away from last night. For the first time this season Missouri played a close game, and they responded in the way nobody wanted them to. The amazing ball movement and team work that has defined the season disappeared. It was replaced by contested shots early in the shot clock. Phil Pressey started forcing his shot, instead of looking for teammates. Despite getting the Illini in foul trouble early in the second half, the Tigers stopped attack and started jump shooting. The result was a 21-6 Illini run to turn a potential blowout into a hardcore basketball game.
The good news is, Missouri snapped out of their poor decision making in the final moments. Phil Pressey drove to the hoop in order to create for his teammates rather than look for a contested layup. The result was a sweet behind the back dump off to Ricardo Ratliffe. Another layup by Ratliffe, immediately after Illinois took a 70-69 lead, gave the Tigers the lead for good.
The play of the game, and the play that I’m sure is giving Illinois fans nightmares right now, came with about 30 seconds left. The Tigers were up four and had the ball. Rather than foul, Bruce Weber elected to let Phil Pressey dribble out the shot clock. The result was an easy driving layup for Pressey, and just 15 seconds for Illinois to score six points. It was the kind of super conservative coaching that Weber is known for, and it basically handed Missouri the win.
Missouri’s critics will point to the 21-6 run and offensive meltdown as evidence that Missouri is still the team they were last year. Missouri fans will say this proved the Tigers are ready for a big run in conference play, and that when it matters most, the team can get the baskets they need to win. Feel free to jump to your own conclusion.
Steve Moore had his best effort of the season last night. The box score only gives a small picture. Moore was able to play 21 minutes of active defense, and made Ricardo Ratliffe’s early game foul trouble a non-issue. His emergence as a good defender and rebounder is as big a story as any for Missouri this year.
Marcus Denmon might catch some heat for not having a good game, but you won’t see that here. Denmon has been the best player against every major conference team Mizzou played this season. Won’t penalize a guy for having one off night, especially when the offense went away from him the whole second half.
Missouri is going on the road next week to play Old Dominion, then its on to conference play.