Sophie Cunningham thwarts Cierra Rice and Alex Wittinger

Missouri guard Sophie Cunningham thwarts the attempts of Illinois guard Cierra Rice, left, and Illinois forward Alex Wittinger to block her path during the 2017 game at Mizzou Arena. Missouri won 72-55.

The Missouri Tigers have one last piece of major non-conference business to take care of before they can attend to their holiday duties.

Missouri will take on Illinois at noon on Friday in the second Braggin’ Rights game in as many years. The game will be broadcast on Big Ten Network+ and KTGR.

Historically, the Braggin’ Rights rivalry has not been kind to Missouri. The program snapped an eight-game losing streak against Illinois in a 72-55 home victory on Dec. 22, 2017, but the Illini still hold an 8-4 advantage in the all-time series between the two schools.

The Tigers (9-3, 0-0 Southeastern Conference) will have to contend with an Illinois team that’s shown the ability to score points in bunches this season. The Fighting Illini are averaging 79 points per game, tied for 34th in the country, and have shot 46.6 percent from the field. Both marks are well over Missouri’s numbers, as the Tigers have scored 65.1 points per game while shooting at a 41.9 percent clip.

Illinois (8-2, 0-0 Big Ten) is also no slouch on defense. Apart from a 109-107 loss to Sacramento State on Nov. 24, the Illini haven’t given up more than 69 points in any game this season.

The Illini don’t rely on creating chaos on the defensive end. Their 14 turnovers forced per game are adequate but far from some of the numbers other Missouri opponents have put up. But their defensive strength is unquestionable, as reflected by the team holding its opponents to 34.8 percent shooting from the field thus far this year.

In addition to impressive shooting and defense, Missouri will also have to deal with one of the Big Ten’s best players: Alex Wittinger, a 6-foot-1 senior forward.

Wittinger, who averaged 15 points and 9 rebounds per game a season ago, is having a dominant senior campaign for the Illini. Her 17.3 points and 9.5 rebounds per game lead her team and put her in the top five in the Big Ten in both categories. She has a strong connection with junior point guard Brandi Beasley, who leads the Illini in assists with 6.3 per game.

The Tigers will have to do all they can to double Wittinger down low and force her to make shots from the outside, an area in which she struggles. They also may find fouling Illinois to be beneficial, as the team’s 62.6 percent free throw percentage is third-worst in the Big Ten.

To counter Illinois’ length and strength inside, Missouri will hope to continue to get significant contributions out of Sophie Cunningham and Amber Smith.

Smith’s emergence as an all-around dynamo is well-documented. She has six double-doubles in 12 games this season and now has eight in her career. But it’s been the offensive firepower of Cunningham that’s been the story for Missouri in the last two games.

The senior has fully emerged from her early season shooting funk and is now very much the player the Tigers expected her to be when the season began. Over her last four games, Cunningham has averaged 20.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, while shooting 49 percent from the field.

Friday’s game should be one that features two evenly-matched teams. If Missouri can slow the pace of the game down, prevent Wittinger from establishing a significant presence on the inside and get two solid scoring performances out of Smith and Cunningham, it should walk out of Champaign, Illinois, with a hard-fought victory.

Otherwise, the Tigers may have a sour taste in their mouths during the eight-day break that will follow Friday’s game, the longest break the team will have between games for the rest of the season.

Supervising editor is Sky Chadde.

  • Fall 2018 sports beat writer. I am a junior studying sports journalism.

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