Game Notes: Missouri vs. Illinois
Tigers claim the Braggin’ Rights.
by Cub Buenning
For the past two days, the city of St. Louis has been a combination of bright orange and striking gold. The NFL’s Rams were in the middle of an actual playoff push and the MLB Cardinals hats had been shelved for the winter to make way for the colors of the Universities of Missouri and Illinois.
The 22,000-seat Scottrade Center in downtown St. Louis housed the fans from the nearby schools and a split right down the arena was glaring, as the fans were packed in for the 30th Annual Busch Braggin’ Rights game between the two top-25 teams.
(While I have been in several pro and college arenas, it was a different experience to see them melded together. For example, the pep bands drowning out/replacing the piped-in arena junk is a major positive.)
Just as the game set to tip, “BEAT UI, BEAT UI!” boomed from the opposite half of the stadium that was drenched in black in gold.
Although, the Illini come into this game on the heels of a bad loss to UI-Chicago, the Tigers come in a bit short-handed. Starting point guard, Mike Dixon should return after sitting out some games due to a suspension, but his replacement during the lay-off, freshman Phil “Flip” Pressey is now out with a bum wrist. Starting in his place is Flip’s older brother, JuCo transfer, Matt Pressey. Yes, the two are the offspring of former Milwaukee Buck guard and current Cleveland Cavs assistant, Paul Pressey.
It takes over two minutes of action to see our first basket, as both teams (and the 20K+ in the seats) appear to be a little over-amped. To borrow a hockey term (in a building that normally only houses the NHL’s Blues) the players were “gripping it” a bit.
We all know by now that Mizzou likes to push the pace and forward Lawrence Bowers flushes home a Tiger miss for the first big fan cheer.
Now four minutes into the game and only two more points have been scored. There are tons of “bunnies” getting missed. Mainly by Illinois, who has the decided height advantage.
The Tigers finally get some makes and really start to turn up the pressure and employ the “40 Minutes of Hell” attack made famous by Mizzou Head Coach, Mike Anderson’s mentor, Nolan Richardson at Arkansas.
Bowers backs up his put-back flush with an impressive reverse dunk from underneath the hoop. (It was especially nice considering it happened about 15 feet from my courtside perch.)
About 10 minutes in, both teams are getting their strides, with Illinois relying heavily on offensive rebounds and second-chance points. Not the best recipe for success, but it (and some really good interior passing) has allowed them to get out to a 23-15 lead at the under 8 break.
At the time-out, the cheer squads have their own grudge match with a one-handed lift contest. Mizzou’s cheerleaders win; half of the crowd goes crazy.
I learn from a neighbor that Mizzou freshman guard, Ricky Kreklow, last year’s Mr. Basketball in Missouri and one that is getting more and more playing time, is not even on scholarship. It turns out his dad is the volleyball coach at Mizzou and a scholarship is not needed.
Arguably, last season’s most prized JuCo possession, Mizzou’s Ricardo Ratliffe is strong, really strong as he muscles in a basket between the 7-1 Mike Tisdale and the 6-9 Mike Davis. The basket puts the Illinois advantage at just five at 25-20. The pressure on these players still seems visible.
Bowers, again, makes a highlight play, but this time the Memphis-native comes from the weak-side, blocks the shot and falls very scarily on his shoulder/wrist. Luckily for Tiger fans, the junior is able to make it the bench.
The Illini got little front-court production last weekend in their loss to UIC. Tonight, though, Tisdale and Davis are involved and active early; Tisdale on the glass and Davis cutting and scoring around the hoop.
The Tiger pressure is really getting cranked up in both the full and half-court. It has forced a tough stretch of shooting for Illinois. Mizzou’s Marcus Denmon hits a big three with just under one minute left to knot the game at 27.
That’s how the first half ends! Not splendid scoring, but still plenty of great hoops to digest.
Some halftime numbers that stick out: Illinois with a 14-5 offensive rebounding advantage (UI’s Mike Tisdale already has 7 offensive/10 total boards). Neither team is shooting over 35 percent from the field. Illinois’ Demetri McCamey has been pretty non-involved, scoring just two points (1-6 FG), no rebounds and an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3:2, which is not good enough for one of the Big Ten’s best players.
Everyone hoped things would open up in the second 20 minutes and that they have!
Just 90 seconds into the half and a barrage of Mizzou energy has vaulted the Tigers into a quick 35-29 advantage.
At a timeout, the jumbotron shows former St. Louis Cardinals manager, Whitey Herzog, much to the delight of this HUGE baseball city.
A player who has been quiet for most of the game, Illinois’ Demetri McCamey, makes a beautiful spin and finish to bring the deficit to 3 points at 37-34.
Mike Davis, again, gets an easy “hoop-and-the-harm” for Illinois. The free-throw, again, ties the score at 37-37.
This time McCamey sets up a teammate, as Tisdale is the benefactor with the easy deuce.
A timeout after some solid Illinois defense has the Orange fans cheering, as the Illini lead 41-37.
The split crowd set-up is awesome as during the course of any one possession, one half of the crowd will ‘OOOHHH’ just seconds before the other might “AAAHHHH.”
The one Illinois guy on Mizzou’s roster, Justin Safford has played a great two-minute stretch (scoring nine straight) getting the lead (50-47) back for the Tigers. McCamey answers with a three-pointer and a driving floater to shift the lead back to Illinois. Ratliffe hits a tough shot inside to again, making it a tied game at 52-all.
With just under five minutes left in the game, McCamey hits another three, making it a 55-54 contest.
(On a kind of humorous side note, this small group of Illinois fans sitting directly behind me has bitched all game about their forward, Davis. Ummm, right now, the senior has 16 and 8 and is playing one of his best games of the year.)
In the final four minutes, teams are trading baskets and stops and the crowd is absolutely electric! You never hear this kind of volume at a professional game.
With two minutes left, the Tigers have strangled back a one-point lead. But, one Tisdale free throw later and the game is again, tied!
Did I mention that this game was getting good?
Just over a minute left, Mizzou’s Dixon hits a tough runner to get back the lead.
Denmon steals an inbounds pass and sets up Ratliffe for an easy bucket and a Tiger 4-point lead.
Never one to wait around, the Tigers blasted down the court and got a Bowers basket which included an intentional foul on Tisdale. Two free throws and a Denmon lay-up later and the game was suddenly out of reach, at 68-61. For good measure, in the midst of the final seconds, Illinois coach Bruce Weber gets a technical of his own, which insights the thousands in orange.
A tough ending to a thrilling and passion-filled game, as the final score of 75-64 does little to illustrate a game that was tied eight times and had nine lead changes.
As the final buzzer sounded, the reaction to this particular game was like no other in ANY college game in December. In addition to parading around a 6-foot tall trophy, the victorious Tigers were outrageously happy, winning their second in a row in the series after losing the previous nine meetings. Hugs, screams and high fives move from the on-court celebration into a near-by team room. I found myself on the court, amongst the Tigers players and trailed them off the floor. Former Tiger players spilled down on to the floor and escorted the current guys through the tunnel (much to the delight of the Mizzou faithful hanging over the railing to get some love).
Amazing, amazing, amazing.
This is exactly why I love college basketball.