Missouri basketball coach Cuonzo Martin is from Illinois, and he has stocked his roster with five scholarship players from his home state. They will enjoy their trips home for Christmas a little more after the Tigers beat Illinois 79-63 Saturday night.
Sophomore forward Jeremiah Tilmon and freshman guard Javon Pickett, who both signed letters of intent with Illinois out of high school before switching their allegiance to Missouri, had big nights. Tilmon scored 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, and Pickett added 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the field. Jordan Geist led the Tigers with 20 points and seven assists.
Missouri (8-3) ended a five-game losing streak to Illinois (4-8) in the annual Braggin’ Rights rivalry. Martin had spent the previous week downplaying the importance of the game, but he said afterward he considers Illinois to be Missouri’s biggest basketball rival. He said last year’s loss to the Illini caused him to have a “miserable Christmas.”
“I’ve always watched this game from afar, and now to be a part of it, it’s a tremendous atmosphere,” said Martin, who is in his second year coaching Missouri. “It’s bigger than just another game.”
Trent Frazier led the Illini with 28 points, and Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Aaron Jordan added 10 points each.
Boos rained on Tilmon and Pickett from the Illinois side of the arena, but the loudest boos were directed at Missouri’s Mark Smith, who played for the Illini last year before transferring. Smith scored just five points on 2-of-8 shooting.
“I heard them, for sure,” Tilmon said of the boos.
Geist and Frazier carried their teams in the first half. Frazier made 5 of 6 shots from 3-point range and had 17 points at halftime. Geist hit 3-pointers on three straight possessions and drew two charges to help the Tigers grab a 39-35 halftime lead.
Frazier put Illinois in front for the first time since the first half when he drove to the left block and kissed a shot off the glass with 7:43 left in the game. But Tilmon put Missouri right back in the lead at 58-56 with a dunk and free throw on the next possession and the Tigers pulled away.
“Give Missouri credit, they made just about every play in those last seven minutes,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.
Since arriving at Missouri two years ago as a lightly regarded junior college transfer, Geist earned a reputation as a feisty player who gets under the skin of opponents. That side was evident early, when he and Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu were both hit with technical fouls after they got into a dispute.
The difference between his sophomore and senior years is that Geist is now far more than an agitator. He is Missouri’s leading scorer at 13.4 points per game.
“Geist was the difference for them,” Underwood said. “That’s a young man who played seven minutes and had four turnovers last year.”
Geist, a point guard, committed only two turnovers against the Illini’s pressure defense.
TALE OF TWO HALVES
After missing just one 3-point attempt in the first half, Frazier cooled off in the second half, making just 1 of 7 from 3-point range. He also missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw opportunity while Missouri went on its late-game run. The Illini made just 7 of 14 free throws as a team.
“I was getting a little fatigued,” Frazier said. “In the second half, they made an adjustment trying to keep the ball out of my hands. I’ve got to be better than that. Tired is no excuse for me.”
Illinois: The Illini are off to their worst start since the 1974-75 season, when they also started 4-8 on their way to an 8-18 mark in Gene Bartow’s only season as coach. With eight scholarship newcomers on the roster and a nonconference schedule loaded with high-major opponents, the rough start hasn’t been totally unexpected.
Missouri: Hopes shrank for the Tigers when do-it-all sophomore forward Jontay Porter suffered a season-ending knee injury in an October scrimmage. After starting the season 3-3, they have won five straight — including victories over UCF, Xavier and now Illinois — raising the possibility that this won’t be the rebuilding season many expected.
Illinois: The Illini return to action Saturday with a home game against Florida Atlantic.
Missouri: The Tigers will complete their nonconference schedule with Saturday’s home game against Morehead State.