In his hometown, guarding two of the best players on the No. 1 team in the country, Missouri’s No. 1 was nowhere to be found for the first 35 minutes.
Nothing seemed to be going right offensively for Tiger guard Jimmy McKinney, who wears No. 1, in Missouri’s 70-64 loss to top-ranked Illinois.
In a game that was closer than most expected, McKinney’s contributions, which came too late to help the Tigers, were noticeably absent.
Maybe it had something to do with superstition. With 7 minutes left in the first half, the referees made McKinney turn his brown ‘Jesus’ armband, which has become his trademark, inside out.
“I’m not sure what that was all about,” McKinney said. “He said that was a rule, but I don’t know what that was about.”
At that point, McKinney’s game was turned inside out as well. He scored only two points in the first half.
“We struggled in the first half,” Snyder said. “All of us did, but I thought we showed some real poise and the makings of some maturity to get out of that situation and continue to play the right way. We had a lot of opportunities. We just weren’t quite strong enough.”
McKinney had a clear path to the basket with 6:10 left in the first half. He drove down the baseline and promptly bricked the ball against the back of the rim on a dunk attempt. On the next possession, Illini guard Luther Head knocked down a 3-pointer right in McKinney’s face.
McKinney’s offensive struggles were perhaps compounded because he drew one of the toughest assignments in college basketball, guarding Illini point guard Dee Brown, who finished with 11 points and five assists.
McKinney also spent stretches guarding Illini guard Deron Williams, but that was not much of a break. Williams is also regarded as one of the better guards in college basketball.
“In the first half it was just really frustrating,” McKinney said. “They were running around and things, but that’s their offense. Second half, we tried to adjust and really tried to know what they were doing and how to keep up with them. I don’t want to say it was a shock, but they made some plays. But we really adjusted and made it tough on them.”
With 9:54 left, Williams had a fast break one-on-one against McKinney. Williams crossed over behind his back and shook McKinney for an easy layup.
The basket hurt the momentum the Tigers had built and ended an 8-0 Missouri run.
Williams finished with 19 points and five assists.
After his defensive effort against the Illinois guards, McKinney didn’t have much energy left for his offensive game.
At times, it seemed he had to decide between the two ends of the court. McKinney hit a long 2-point shot as the shot clock expired to cut the Illinois lead to five with 7:45 left, but Brown hit a 3-pointer 20 seconds later.
McKinney found his offensive rhythm late, but it wasn’t enough to save the Tigers.
He had a key bucket with 1:22 left to cut the Illini lead to five. He also drew the foul on Williams, but missed the free throw.
He hit two free throws to cut the Illini lead to six with 32 seconds left, but it was not enough to catch Williams and Illinois.
Williams made 7-of-8 free throws in the final 8 minutes to preserve the lead.
McKinney finished with eight points and two assists in 33 minutes of play.
It was not quite the homecoming McKinney, who played at Vashon High School in St. Louis, had envisioned, but he said it was still good to be home.
“The atmosphere was great,” McKinney said. “And that tells you something about St. Louis. I love this town. This is my town. It was great for me, but it would have been even better if we could have come out of here with a victory.”