COLUMBIA — When fans think of a Missouri vs. Illinois men’s basketball game, they think of the two teams playing in an annual showdown in St. Louis in one of the best non-conference rivalries in college basketball.
But it’s a rivalry that hasn’t translated to the women’s game.
The reason? The two teams haven’t played enough for the game to evolve into anything resembling the stature of the rivalry on the men’s side.
“It’s been on and off so we really haven’t been able to establish that type of rivalry,” coach Cindy Stein said. “It’d be nice. I think it has the potential to be, but it’s not like us and KU yet.”
MU and Illinois have played just nine times with the Tigers winning the first three matchups and the Fighting Illini taking down the last six. The last time the Tigers and Fighting Illini played was Dec. 21, 2002. The Tigers lost, 70-67, almost five years to the day before the two team’s take the floor again today.
The men’s team, on the other hand, will play Illinois on Saturday for the 27th straight year. Junior guard Alyssa Hollins said that while the two teams haven’t established a strong rivalry, she expects some of the excitement from the men’s game to spill over to the women’s team.
“It’ll carry over into our game,” Hollins said. “Any motivation is good motivation.”
Sophomore point guard Toy Richbow doesn’t think that the Fighting Illini are a rival for one simple reason.
“KU is our rival,” Richbow said. “But any team we play we try to go out there aggressive. We don’t have any friends on the opposite team.”
That’s not necessarily true for three of MU’s coaches. Stein, associate head coach Lynnette Robinson and assistant coach Allison Guth all graduated from Illinois. Guth graduated in 2004 and played against Missouri in her sophomore and junior seasons. She remembers those games being more important because the women’s game was played before the Braggin’ Rights game at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
“As a player at Illinois we would always get fired up because it would be a doubleheader with the guys,” Guth said. “I don’t think the rivalry is as prominent now.”
While any intensity in the on-court game has fizzled, the game will be critical for recruiting purposes. The two teams often recruit some of the same players and a win would give them a good talking point for recruits.
“There’s a lot of pride as far as who you’re recruiting,” Guth said. “We recruit a lot of the same areas that Illinois recruits so I think there is definitely a little rivalry from a coaching standpoint.”
Guth is also excited to be playing against her alma mater. Even though she has already played against Illinois twice when she was an assistant coach at Loyola, she is still looking forward to facing the Fighting Illini.
“I think you always get fired up for something that kind of hits close to your heart,” Guth said. “Obviously Illinois is one of those I really want to get.”
That’s a sentiment Stein doesn’t share. She’s looking forward to facing Illinois because they will be a stiff test for MU — the fact that she played there doesn’t add any motivation.
“I think they’re a very good team,” Stein said. “That’s exciting. Coach (Jolette) Law is a great coach and I think that’s a challenge. I think those things are fun as a coach. . . . Just because it’s my alma mater, I don’t get all warm and fuzzy inside.”
The Tigers have the standard rivalry with Kansas that all MU teams have, but they don’t have the secondary rivalry with Illinois that many other programs have. So Hollins said she wants to continue to play Illinois and establish one to create more excitement for the team.
“You love rivalries,” Hollins said. “Every time you start a rivalry you always think of KU and Mizzou. That’s a big one and we get fired up for that game. Getting more games like that where you can get fired up or have the pride to be representing the school or the state would be good.”
The Tigers hope to create that atmosphere by simply playing the Illini regularly. They’ll travel to Champaign next season and Stein wants to keep playing beyond that.
“We have a home and home series going on and hopefully that will continue,” Stein said.