ST. LOUIS — The Missouri men’s basketball team is not playing at the level coach Quin Snyder said he wants them to, but the Tigers came closer against Illinois on Wednesday night in the Braggin’ Rights game at Savvis Center.
Entering the game, few believed the Tigers could compete with No. 1 Illinois (11-0). Missouri, though, stayed in the game and in the end came close to winning, but the Fighting Illini held on for a 70-64 victory.
Missouri’s defense was the main reason the game was close. The Illini (11-0) entered averaging 53.4 percent shooting from the field, and the Tigers held them to 42.3 percent. Missouri (6-5) also protected the perimeter, letting Illinois hit 5-of-19 from 3-point range. Also, Illinois had defeated all 10 of its opponents by at least 12 points until Wednesday.
Snyder said his team did everything he wanted, but in the end his players couldn’t make the plays they needed to in order to win.
“I was very proud of how our team handled this challenge,” Snyder said. “I think it demonstrates for our guys the divide between where we are and where we want to be.”
Snyder said he didn’t know how long it would take the Tigers to reach their potential. Linas Kleiza, a sophomore forward who led Missouri with 25 points against Illinois, said he and his teammates were showing improvement every game.
“I think we’re coming, you know, we’re growing as a team,” Kleiza said. “I’m saying that after every game. ‘We’re young, we’re growing as a team.’ I think our commitment got even better. Commitment to the defense, commitment to each other and commitment to taking the coaching.”
Snyder said his team has become more mature. He said that was evident in how meticulously it prepared for Illinois.
“They’re starting to understand the urgency of some of those little things, those intangible things,” Snyder said.
This improvement has allowed each individual on the team to grow and as a result the team itself has grown, Snyder said. “I think we’ve taken some steps,” Snyder said. “You look at the scoreboard tonight and we haven’t stepped far enough to win this game. I think the challenge for us is to continue to grind at it and that’s what the last few weeks have been like for us.”
Others have noticed Missouri’s improvement. Illinois coach Bruce Weber said Missouri wasn’t the only team that was going to learn from the game.
“This will be a good teaching tape,” Weber said. “It’s good to win a game and have a chance to teach.”
Weber said for the first time all season his players were too tired to celebrate after a victory.
“It was such a hard-fought game,” Weber said.
“You know, every game has been so pleasant. This wasn’t pleasant.”