For 20 minutes in Tuesday night’s game against Illinois, the 10th-ranked Missouri basketball team made defensive stops, outrebounded its opponent and handled the ball well.
The Tigers’ play during the other 20 minutes, on the other hand, warranted their second loss. The Illini defeated them 71-70.
Slow starts have plagued the Tigers all season.
In six games, the Tigers’ opponents have outscored them 228-211 in the first half.
On Tuesday, they didn’t have enough energy to recuperate.
Before halftime, the Illini built a 42-28 lead. They shot less than 50 percent in the first half, but timely 5-of-8 shooting from 3-point range stalled every Missouri comeback attempt.
Missouri coach Quin Snyder has demanded transition defense from his squad all year, but the Illini left the Tigers shell-shocked from the start, generating 12 fast-break points against Missouri’s two.
“That was on the top of our list as far as an awareness that we had to have,” Snyder said. “We just didn’t do a good enough job of that in the first half.”
After 15 minutes in the locker room at the half, the Tigers roared back to life like a different team. A switch to half-court defense that used zone coverage reaped dividends for the Tigers.
Missouri did not allow a fast-break point in the second half. The Tigers turned first-half scoring woes into 52-percent shooting. They held Illinois to 8-of-26 shooting.
Snyder said that until his team finds an identity on offense and defense, Missouri’s play will be inefficient and inconsistent. In Snyder’s game plan, defensive stability will translate to scoring.
The Tigers (4-2) had many chances early against Illinois, but they wasted almost every opportunity.
“When you have breakdowns, you give up open shots,” Snyder said. “As much as anything, whether it’s a breakdown offensively, by turning the ball over, or it’s a breakdown defensively, we’re not as connected as we need to be.”
When the final seconds ticked away, the Tigers didn’t have quite enough intensity to close the Illini lead. The Illini squeaked by with the upset win, but Tigers’ senior forward Travon Bryant said his team’s habitual game-opening slumps have been too frequent.
With the Tigers’ coming schedule, Bryant said now is the time to fix their problems.
“Teams are going to come at us all the time,” Bryant said. “We’ve just got to keep going.”
The Tigers travel to Memphis, Tenn., on Saturday, and starting point guard Jimmy McKinney said the first thing Missouri needs to do is figure out how to capture the second-half zeal its played with in almost every game this year.
Until his squad starts like it wants to finish, McKinney said the Tigers’ losing will continue.
“We’re going to play 40 minutes,” McKinney said. “When we play 40 minutes of defense, we beat teams by 30.”
The Tigers made quick work of the team’s last meeting, beating Memphis 93-78 last season at Hearnes Center. Although last year’s Memphis team finished 23-7 and made an NCAA Tournament appearance, this year’s squad has postseason potential, too. Memphis (6-2) received votes in the most recent Top 25 poll and pose another upset threat for the Tigers.
Saturday’s tip-off is at 11 a.m. at the Pyramid. Missouri leads the series 6-4, but these teams share the same perimeter defense disorder.
Illinois beat Memphis 74-64 on Dec. 13 in a come-from-behind run capped with six 3-pointers, the same method the Illini used to build its lead against Missouri.
For McKinney, overcoming the Tigers’ first-half falters is all in his head.
“It’s a mind thing,” McKinney said. “If we want to play for 40 minutes, we’re going to win. We can’t come out flat anymore or we’ll lose to Memphis.”