It was a resounding, encouraging win for the Tigers (8-3). Missouri withstood the barrage of made shots, including some three-pointers, from Illinois (4-8) early in the game, which is pretty much as expected an event as kids putting out cookies for Santa.
The Tigers rallied and led 39-35 at the half. Missouri pushed the lead to double digits, but Illinois roared back to take a one-point lead, and it felt like a “here we go again” situation. But Missouri simply took their game to another level that the Illini couldn’t match. It was level that gives Tiger fans a glimmer of hope that even this seeming rebuilding team that lost its best player before the season could make a push for the NCAA Tournament.
Missouri surged ahead and won comfortably, with the team joyously lifted the rather large Braggin’ Rights trophy afterward, and coach Cuonzo Martin, an East St. Louis native, showed some emotion after the game.
Jordan Geist led the Tigers with 20 points. His shooting percentage of 40 percent was fairly ordinary, but he made three straight three-pointers in the first half to put Missouri ahead and crush that “here we go again” feeling. The losing streak to Illinois ended at five.
Jeremiah Tilmon had 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting and 12 rebounds, another double-double after he had a career-best game against Xavier in the game before. The big man getting his game going, and staying out of foul trouble, is a very encouraging sign for the Tigers going forward.
Javon Pickett also had 16 points, on a very impressive 7-for-8 shooting performance, including making both three-pointers he attempted.
The Braggin’ Rights win was Missouri’s fifth straight, giving Tiger fans some excitement as Southeastern Conference play draws closer. After a Dec. 29 home game with Morehead State (1 p.m. on SEC Network Plus), the Tigers dive right into conference play with a tough game, hosting Tennessee on Jan. 8 (6 p.m. on ESPN2). The Vols are ranked in the top 5 and might be the best team in the SEC. It’s probably a big ask for the Tigers to win that one, but it is at home, and it’s a great opportunity for Missouri. If they win here they can definitely start the NCAA Tournament watch. Even if they don’t there are 18 games in total to help make their case.
Missouri will likely start SEC play at 9-3. The schedule has not been especially rugged, but there have been some decent wins and quality opponents in losses. At minimum, Missouri probably needs to get to 9-9 to have a shot at the Tourney, and a winning record in SEC play is a safer bet.
But March is still a long way off, and for now it’s just nice to see Missouri playing good basketball.