ST. LOUIS — Under third-year head coach Cuonzo Martin, success for Missouri men’s basketball hinges on defense.
Martin constantly stresses how the Tigers pride themselves on ball pressure and surrounding the backboards.
On Saturday afternoon in their annual Braggin’ Rights matchup, they did just that. Missouri won 63-56 for its second straight triumph over Illinois at the Enterprise Center.
Dru Smith paced Missouri with 19 points, including 9 of 10 from the free-throw line, while Javon Pickett scored 17 and Xavier Pinson had 14.
Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu led all scorers with 21 after scoring only two points in last year’s matchup.
Coming into Saturday, the Fighting Illini were averaging 82 points per game. The Tigers’ stifling defense held them 26 points below that. Illinois’ 56 points were the lowest amount it has scored in a game this season.
Despite that fact, Martin said his team has 25% of its defensive potential still to show, and he’s confident the Tigers will get there.
“We know that they score 80-plus points a game,” Martin said of the Illini. “But for us, we want to control the tempo. And the thing I always say to our guys is: We have good defensive numbers. I think we can have the elite numbers if we truly took pride in playing defense and not so much playing because this is what coach requires, but understanding when you’re defending at an elite level you have the chance to beat truly anybody.
“... It's safe to say our 3-ball hasn't fallen the way we like. So then what do we do to compensate?”
Missouri's 5-for-14 (35.7%) mark from beyond the arc was up from most games this season. The Tigers (7-4) shut down Illinois’ 3-point efforts, as it shot 2 of 14 from deep, including a 12.5% mark in the second half.
“We just played together. Guys were talking on the floor, we were talking in the huddle,” said MU forward Mitchell Smith, who was on the court for a game-high 35 minutes. “We wanted to win this game. This game is very important to us. So we were tuned in from the beginning and got the outcome we wanted.”
Although the junior only finished with four points, he exemplified Martin’s philosophy of making your presence felt in the game even when shots aren’t going in.
His responsibility on defense was primarily guarding Giorgi Bezhanishvili and also helping Missouri center Jeremiah Tilmon when Illinois' 7-foot, 290-pound freshman phenom, Kofi Cockburn, had the ball in the low post.
The Illinois duo was held to six rebounds in 59 combined minutes.
“They're both good players. Giorgi, he's a glue guy. So they looked to him to get the offense going and stuff,” Mitchell Smith said. “And Kofi, he's a big guy down there. ... He’s trying to carve people out to get boards.”
The Tigers led by as many as 14 in the second half, a margin they acquired on a Tilmon one-handed, putback dunk. But the Illini (8-4 overall, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) cut their deficit to five points with under a minute to go.
Tilmon was held to four points in the game, while Mark Smith was scoreless against his former team. Smith’s record in Braggin’ Rights games improves to 3-0, however.
Martin said after the game that Tilmon came into the rivalry showdown at less than 100% with a foot injury. Martin added Tilmon is expected to be healthy by the time MU returns to action at home Dec. 30 against Chicago State.
Missouri played the final 4:29 without Tilmon, who fouled out after getting called as part of a double technical.
The physical nature of the game may have gotten the best of Tilmon, but the Tigers’ composure didn’t falter.
Despite coming into the day with a plus-five average rebound margin compared to Illinois' plus-14 mark, MU outrebounded its rival 36-32.
“They’re an elite rebounding team. Like I said to our guys, if they’re the best rebounding team, let's find out,” Martin said. “And I always say to our guys that you have to play with boxing gloves on, you know, then we'll start playing basketball. Now, I don't say that like we're fighting, because they understand what I mean. It has to be a physical game.
"You have to set a tone of toughness before you step on the floor. I think if you walk on the floor casual, the result will be like Charleston (Southern)," a 68-60 home loss.
With the outcome in hand, Mark Smith drove for an emphatic dunk for Missouri after being fouled with 4.9 seconds left. The bucket didn’t count, but some of his former Illinois teammates took exception. Smith missed both ensuing free throws after a heated exchange with a few Illini players.
At the final whistle, an outbreak of joy came from the Missouri bench. And while “Gloria” by Laura Branigan didn’t play as confetti fell to the St. Louis floor, Missouri celebrated by lifting a trophy taller than the Stanley Cup at the home of the NHL's reigning champion Blues.
The trend of Braggin’ Rights winning streaks continues with Missouri's pair of wins over the past 13 months. Illinois won five straight games in the series before that. Prior to the Illini’s surge, MU won four straight from 2009-12.
Martin believes Illinois is an NCAA Tournament team barring any major injuries and complimented head coach Brad Underwood for the roster he’s assembled.
Yet Missouri has won three straight games, and its emphatic win over its rival to the east has given the Tigers life with a healthy roster entering league play.
"Both teams are good," Martin said. "Somebody’s coming out on top every year, and I'm just grateful to be on the top this year.”