ST. LOUIS — The Missouri men's basketball team waited in the middle of the court to receive the Braggin’ Rights trophy. Moments later, Steve Moore hurdled a gate and launched himself into the Missouri pep band to pass out sweaty hugs while Kim English skipped around the floor holding two fingers up in the air.
As Mike Anderson’s players celebrated a victory in their second straight nonconference rivalry game against Illinois, the question arises. How does this team still have so much energy? The answer is the reason Missouri won the game.
“That’s the fastest 40 minutes,” Justin Safford said in response to how Missouri finished against Illinois.
No. 9 Missouri didn’t play the perfect game on Wednesday. It didn’t need to. The final score showed 75-64, but with 1:48 left, the game was tied at 58. Moore got out of his seat on the Missouri bench. The only player standing, he began waving his arms up and down, urging fans to get louder. In the final moments, his team would shine.
“We do it every day in practice. That’s a lot of time for us,” Safford said.
Missouri did what it does best. The Tigers created a chaotic pace in which only they could remain calm. Up by one, Missouri scored eight points in less than 10 seconds of the final minute of play to pull away from the Illini. The points did not come off an elaborate offensive scheme. They were a result of an exhaustive application of Missouri’s never stop attitude.
With the score tied, Missouri settled into its starting block like a sprinter ready for a race. The Tigers had trailed the majority of the first half, remaining close in the second, but the momentum was about to shift.
Michael Dixon drove to his right, sending a ball high over the outstretched arms of 7-foot-1 Illinois center Mike Tisdale. The ball gently bumped the glass and found the net. Missouri had a two-point lead and the crowd was raucous.
Missouri thrived on the chaos. Illinois fell apart.
“Instead of panicking, we made plays,” Anderson said.
Marcus Denmon harassed Illinois’s Brandon Paul, using the halfcourt line as an extra defender as he swiped the ball away, gladly hitting his knees for the loose prize. Illinois coach Bruce Weber sensed Paul was in trouble and called a timeout seconds before the steal. Denmon’s relentlessness didn’t cease after the timeout. He stole the inbounds pass and Ricardo Ratliffe ran the court with him for a layup.
The Illini’s answer was a 3-pointer resulting from a steal of its own. Mike Davis passed to D.J. Richardson who hit the shot, cutting Missouri’s lead to 62-61.
Missouri fans crowded into the Scottrade Center were stunned. English, however, wasn’t fazed.
“Make it or miss it, we are going to push it back at you,” Anderson said.
Before the Illinois fans finished clapping for Richardson’s 3-pointer, English inbounded the ball to Denmon who relayed it to Laurence Bowers. Bowers made the open layup as well as two free throws after Tisdale was called for an intentional foul on the play.
More quick thinking on the inbounds after the free throws resulted in Denmon slicing behind a defender for another easy score.
By the time Weber was whistled for a technical foul, his team was down 68-61.
Denmon led the Tigers with 15 points, but Missouri's scoring was evenly dispersed. Besides Denmon, five scored in double figures, including Safford and Dixon, who both came in off the bench.
Missouri trailed multiple times throughout the game, going down by as much as 10 in the first half, mostly because of its inability to rebound. The Tigers were outrebounded 30-20 in the first half (44-32 for the game). Time after time, Tisdale plucked balls like ripe apples as they came off the rim.
Missouri shot a measly 33 percent in the first half, but with three minutes left, the Tigers scored nine straight points to head to halftime tied at 27. The string of unanswered points was only a warm up for the dash that would eventually win the game.