Although the Illinois Fighting Illini entered its matchup with the Missouri Tigers with a paltry 4-7 record, it’s safe to say the squad from Champaign, Ill. was probably prepared to pop bubbly Saturday night. After all, the Illini were on a five-game winning streak against the Tigers and led 25-12 in the series matchup.
Illinois also held a nine-game winning streak against Mizzou from 2000-2008. So despite the popularity of the neutral ground rivalry, Mizzou probably looked like Central Connecticut State on the Illini’s schedule - an easy win.
However, in recent years Mizzou has fortified its program with an influx of talent from the “Ill side.” In fact, it’s almost as if Mizzou has raided the Illinois talent cupboards. Head Coach Cuonzo Martin and sophomore forward Jeremiah Tilmon are East St. Louis natives. Freshman guard Javon Pinkett is from Belleville. Sophomore guard Mark Smith from Edwardsville.
Martin was reportedly offered the Illinois job before accepting Mizzou’s offer a season ago. Smith transferred to Missouri from Illinois. Tilmon and Pinkett both committed to the Fighting Illini before changing course and joining the Tigers.
As the fisherman in the State Farm commercial would tell say, “Come on Illinois! Gotta be quicker than that!”
Every time Smith or Tilmon touched the ball, the Illini fans booed and mocked the players as turncoats. It’s possible that the boos affected Smith, who scored just five points on 2-of-8 shooting. However, the extra attention seemed to empower Tilmon, who racked up 16 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks to help lead the Tigers to a 79-63 victory.
One of Tilmon’s biggest plays came with just under 15 minutes left in the first half with a tight 50-46 score in favor of the Tigers. Less than 30 seconds after picking up his third foul of the game, Tilmon saw the Fighting Illini’s Kipper Nichols slashing to the basket. Tilmon had three options: let him go by for the easy bucket; try to block the shot; or slide in front an attempt to take a charge.
Many Mizzou fans hoped Tilmon would give up the basket in order to ensure that he would on the floor. Instead, Tilmon slid in front of Nichols. A collision ensued. A collective gasp was heard throughout the Enterprise Center. The referee signaled an offensive foul by Nichols. Tilmon had beaten him to the spot. Tigers’ fans roared in approval.
Pinkett was not treated as harshly by the Illinois fans, maybe because he was not quite as highly-touted as Tilmon or Smith. That did not affect him from rising to the occasion to defeat the Illini. Pinkett more than doubled his season average of 7.5 ppg by contributing 16 points on a remarkable 7-of-8 shooting night.
The Tigers were led in scoring by senior guard Jordan Geist, who scored 20 points, seven assists and six rebounds. Geist has made a remarkable turnaround. Last season, he often seemed to be the Tigers’ weakest link. This season, Geist is undeniably the team’s leader and most stabilizing force.
With the impressive victory, the Tigers sent many Illini fans home early and improved to 8-3. Meanwhile the Fighting Illini dropped to 4-8. The future looks pretty bleak for John Groce’s team as the Illini will face four ranked teams in its next seven games. As far as the Tigers, Martin’s team has a more forgiving schedule with only one ranked opponent (Tennessee) over the next seven games.
For the second-consecutive season, Martin has his Tigers team seemingly overachieving after losing a star player. Last season, the Tigers finished 20-13 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013 despite losing Michael Porter Jr. at the start of the season.
This year, the Tigers team is finding success despite losing Jontay Porter to a torn ACL and MCL before the season began. It will remain to be seen whether the Tigers can make it back to the Big Dance. However, the Tigers’ current five-game winning streak, including victories over University of Central Florida and Xavier, seem to signal that the Illinois Missouri Tigers don’t have any plans to roll over just because the team’s star player was lost for the season.
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