Noth­ing to brag about: ‘Com­bat­ive spirit’ lack­ing

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - COLLEGES - By Shan­non Ryan

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.

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