ST. LOUIS — The Scottrade Center certainly didn’t need anything other than the game between Missouri and Illinois to maintain its deafening pulse. After each momentum-changing play – one seemed to come every minute – a crowd of 20,497 divided right at center court took turns pumping energy into the arena
But, just for good measure, Scott Evans made sure the arena’s pulse didn’t flatline, and, with a performance that matched that of the Missouri basketball team in its 81-68 win against Illinois, he shot the pulse skyrocketing upward.
Evans, a Missouri male cheerleader, found himself in the basketball equivalent of being trapped in a corner with no help in sight. Evans and his partner, Kelsey Sisco, were the last pair standing in the “Lib Contest,” a competition between Missouri and Illinois cheerleaders to see which male-female pair can last the longest performing the Liberty grip, which consists of a male cheerleader extending his arms straight upward to support a female cheerleader balancing one foot in his hands.
“You just kind of go 'til your muscles stop,” Evans said.
And he just about did.
The competition took place during the under-eight minute media timeout in the first half, the score of the game tied at 24. Missouri’s cheerleaders started the competition with the odds stacked against them, beginning with three cheerleader pairings against Illinois’ five. The Missouri squad was missing cheerleader Justin Short, still out of action after a recent suspension. The Tigers’ basketball team came into the game as underdogs too, having lost nine straight to Illinois.
Quickly, Missouri was down four to one, and the Illini fans were rising up and ready to explode. Evans and Sisco were the Tigers’ last hope. There was no way they could outlast four Illinois pairings. No way.
“I tried not to look,” Sisco said. A glance at the Illinois side would have surely cost her to lose her balance.
“I picked out a spot on the wall and wasn’t going to take my eyes off of it,” Sisco said.
After the next female Illinois cheerleader jumped down, the Tigers’ half of the arena got a little louder. After the next fall, a bit more louder. And louder again. Finally, after what Evans and Sisco estimate was a minute-and-a-half, the last Illini pair gave way. Immediately, Missouri's band began to blare the Tigers’ fight song. Seemingly every Missouri fan in the arena sprung into the air and bellowed a collective roar that matched any ovation of the night.
Evans bounced around on the court as if he’d hit the game-winning shot to end Missouri’s nine years of futility against Illinois. The 6-foot-1-inch, 285-pound cheerleader bounced all the way over to Missouri’s bench to high-five Kim English and J.T. Tiller, who were heading back onto the floor. After he finally got off the court – not because he wanted to, but because the game needed to get going again – Evans was greeted with a kiss on the cheek from Missouri cheerleading coach Suzy Thompson.
“It’s exciting when the crowd recognizes some of the things we do,” Evans said.
The fans weren’t the only ones who took notice. After Evans and Sisco’s heroics, Missouri outscored Illinois 17-10 – with a 10-0 run in the middle – through the rest of the half.
“I don’t think we were responsible for it,” Evans said. But, after Sisco started to chime in, Evans started over, “Sure we were.”
“I think we got the crowd pumped,” Sisco said.
“Yeah, it helps,” said Evans, who said he could have lasted only 10 seconds longer. “It kind of has an impact on the crowd. We did our job to help keep the crowd excited.”
Sure did. Rallying about 10,000 fans into a screaming frenzy ought to get you a pat on the back. Or a kiss on the cheek.
Evans said Missouri’s win in the Lib Contest was its third straight against Illinois. It was also Evans’ third time winning the contest himself.
“You want to win,” Evans said. “We’re cheerleaders and we don’t get a lot of times where we actually get to compete for things. We have a competition we do once a year. We’re all competitive people, so it’s fun to be able to go out there.”
Nothing, though, was as meaningful to Evans as the streak Missouri’s basketball team ended.
“I’d turn in a thousand cheerleading victories for a win in the Braggin’ Rights game right now,” Evans said at halftime. “It’s been a long time, so I hope they win. We do what we can to try to help them out.”
Illinois’ cheerleaders put up a longer fight than their basketball team.
“Illinois, I’ve got to give it to them,” Evans said. “They had some really good guys out there. I think probably the longest in the Braggin’ Rights game that the Lib contest has gone.”
Evans and Sisco held the Liberty grip for about a minute-and-a-half, but how long did it feel like?
“Forever,” Evans said.
Just like Missouri’s last Braggin’ Rights win before Wednesday. Everyone can relax now.