Nothing to brag about: ‘Combative spirit’ lacking
ST. LOUIS — Emotions bubbled in the final minutes of the annual Illinois-Missouri Braggin’ Rights rivalry game Saturday as officials separated jawing players before taunts turned physical.
After the Tigers’ Mark Smith — an Illini transfer — dunked following a whistle, he exchanged heated words with guard Ayo Dosunmu. Alan Griffin confronted Missouri players and drew two technical fouls.
Missouri’s Xavier Pinson tauntingly waved to Illinois fans, prompting one to scream Pinson is a “punk” and call him a “nobody.” Pinson smiled and shrugged.
Missouri showed its feistiness when it mattered most. After the Illini were outmuscled in a 63-56 loss at the Enterprise Center, they should be angriest with themselves.
“It’s very personal to them,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “They played that way. … It’s an energy maybe we lacked that they had. … We didn’t have the right combative spirit.”
Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin called the Illini an NCAA Tournament team. That’s becoming debatable. Losses like the one to the Tigers are costly when the selection committee starts inspecting teams’ resumes.
Illinois (8-4) already blew what would have been a signature win at then-No. 3 Maryland and fell behind Miami at home by a massive first-half margin in a twopoint loss. A victory against then-No. 5 Michigan, which is ranked No. 15 by KenPom.com, was a step in the right direction.
But a loss to a subpar Missouri team (7-4), which registered only its second win against a team in KenPom’s top 65, will be a noticeable blemish. Besides the Michigan win, Illinois has no victories against teams with a better KenPom rating than No. 157 Hawaii.
Underwood didn’t want a big-picture focus to come from Saturday’s loss.
“Forty minutes in a long season with 18 Big Ten games to play,” he said. “I don’t put any more emphasis on one game. They were better tonight. It’s 40 minutes in a long season.”
Underwood noted the Big Ten owns the nation’s highest rankings and referenced chances to clean up during the remainder of the conference season.
“We’re going to have plenty of opportunities,” Underwood said. “We have to do some things better.”
The Illini must avoid looking worldclass and dead last in the same game. Their hot and cold streaks have plagued them this season, but against Missouri, Illinois appeared out of sync nearly from tip off.
The Illini’s errors were emphasized in the second half, when they missed seven of their first eight field-goal attempts, hit only 8 of 25 shots and turned the ball over nine times.
Want more disturbing statistics? Illinois had four assists to 17 turnovers. Giorgi Bezhanishvili accounted for six turnovers, prompting him to describe the performance as “horrible.” He had five points and four rebounds.
Center Kofi Cockburn, who ranked second in the Big Ten with 10.5 rebounds per game, pulled down only two — and none on the offensive end.
Trent Frazier, who scored 28 points in last season’s meeting, was held without a field goal until he made a 3-pointer more than eight minutes into the second half. Martin said the Tigers focused on keeping Frazier from catching and shooting, which can “cause a long night” for opponents.
Key shots down the stretch from Ayo Dosunmu, who finished with 21 points, cut Missouri’s lead 57-52 with 59 seconds left. But the damage had been done.
Dru Smith’s 19 points led the Tigers, who won their second straight in the series after four consecutive losses. They celebrated in front of their fans with the Braggin’ Rights trophy.
Illini fans booed whenever Mark Smith touched the ball. They also jeered Jeremiah Tilmon, a former Illini commitment as a recruit.
Neither player made much impact. Tilmon finished with four points and Smith was scoreless. Javon Pickett — another former Illinois commitment — added 17, and Pinson scored 14.
“It felt like a 25-point (difference),” Underwood said of the final score.
Underwood is right: Illinois has time to correct itself.
The Illini just don’t have time for more of losses like this.