Considering the pace of the first half, spectators might have confused the black and gold team on the floor of the Scott Trade Center to be the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Illinois capitalized on their height advantage and Missouri’s poor shooting to give the game a methodical, plodding feel typical to that of Big Ten games. However, the Tigers used an 11-2 run in the final five minutes of the half to draw the game at 27.
The Tigers shot 43 percent (3/7) and allowed only two offensive rebounds during that stretch. In contrast, Missouri shot 32 percent and surrendered 12 offensive rebounds in the first 15 minutes of the game.
The second half played out in a back and forth fashion, keeping the evenlly-split crowd of 21,000+ engaged, creating a festive holiday atmosphere. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the Illini were not in the giving mood as they only committed six second-half turnovers.
Instead, Missouri received a different kind of Christmas bonus. Leading 62-58 with the ball and 44 seconds on the clock, Illini sophomore Brandon Pau missed consecutive free throws. Following the defensive rebound, Illinois’ Mike Davis poked the ball loose from Mike Dixon and it eventually found Illini sharpshooter D.J. Richardson, shooting 43 percent from behind the arc. Richardson made the score 62-61 and gave Illini fans in attendance hope for a late surge.
But before the blue and orange supporters in attendance could celebrate the make, Laurence Bowers was heading to the free throw line.
Ricardo Ratliffe initiated a mad dash down the court with a quick inbounds after the Richardson three. Marcus Denmon found Bowers streaking down the court, behind 7’1” safety valve Mike Tisdale. Bowers received the pass in stride and laid the ball in despite a shove in the back from Tisdale. Tisdale received an intentional foul on the play for his action being “purposeful or reactionary” according to NCAA Rule Four Section 29 Article Two.
The bucket and the two free throws that followed extended the Tigers’ lead to 66-61. Since the foul occurred close to the basket, the Tigers retained the ball and inbounded under the Illinois basket. Marcus Denmon slipped behind the defense for an easy layup after an inbounds pass from Kim English.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber took offense to the intentional foul call, which earned him a technical shortly after Denmon’s layup. After two more free throws, Missouri had a nine-point lead and Tiger fans had no recollection of Richardson’s clutch three.
This 18 second flurry, spurred by Bowers’ “back-atcha” layup, cemented Missouri’s second straight victory over Illinois and showed a national TV audience the basics of the “Fastest Forty Minutes.”
Some other notable performances from Wednesday night:
Justin Safford may be becoming the Derek Fisher of this year’s squad. Being the lone senior on this team, Safford averages 17 minutes a game, down from 20 last year. While much will be made about the offensive outbursts from Ratliffe, English and Denmon this year, Safford continues to be the glue that Missouri missed down the stretch last year. During a 3:20 span in the middle of the second half, Safford scored nine straight points for Missouri, three more than all of Illinois. Safford clearly wanted the ball. He grabbed an offensive rebound in this stretch as well. He appeared more confident on his surgically repaired ACL than ever this season. Safford currently shoots 48 percent from the field, a welcome consistency among the, at times, erraticness that comes with Missouri’s style of play.
Healthy and productive Safford = fresh and effective Bowers and Ratliffe. And that’s just good for everyone.
Mike Dixon Jr. returned to action for the Tigers after serving a two-game suspension. Last year the freshman used the Braggin Rights game as his coming out party. This year served as redemption. Dixon played 31 minutes off the bench, scoring 10 points and dishing out six assists. The rust from the suspension showed early as Dixon missed his three shots from the field and turned the ball over twice in the first half. But the point guard from Kansas City showed the maturity he began to develop at last year’s contest.
He set the tempo in the second half, opening with a three pointer, a steal and an assist that allowed Missouri to open up with a 8-2 run in the first 1:30. Dixon had 2 more assists and three more points in the rest of the half, helping the Tigers put away the Illini.