Elementary college ball: Missouri men’s basketball rides free throws to Braggin’ Rights win

The Tigers went 26-31 at the free throw line to fuel an upset against No. 6 Illinois.

The thrilling end to the upset win for Missouri men’s basketball over No. 6 Illinois in the Braggin’ Rights matchup was set up by something more mundane: free throws.

Missouri finished the game 26-31 from the free-throw line and made nine more free throws than the Fighting Illini, which was enough to give the Tigers an 81-78 victory.

In the 2019-20 season, the Tigers let too many games slip away by giving their opponents more opportunities at the free throw line, as opponents shot five more free throws per game than the Tigers and made two more free throws per game as a result.

But on Saturday night, when Missouri needed to play its biggest game of the season against No. 6 Illinois, head coach Cuonzo Martin’s squad took care of business at the free-throw line and in the win column.

“We’ve punched teams in the mouth and then seen them come back late or early and go up a lot of points before,” junior guard Xavier Pinson said. “It was no different from this game. We just had to do what we had to do to keep a lead in our advantage and stay locked until the buzzer sign.”

The refs had foul calls on speed dial Saturday night, as the Tigers and the Illini combined for 52 fouls in 40 minutes of action. As a result of the constant whistles, Missouri was in the double bonus early in both halves and scored nearly one-third of their points via free throw.

Martin prides his team on its aggressiveness, which got them to the foul line off driving through the paint and into Illinois’ 7-foot big man Kofi Cockburn. He doesn’t care where the points come from. What matters to him is who is ahead at the end of the game.

“I said to all the guys, ‘Let's get one more point, and we're good to go,’” Martin said. “‘I don't care how we can do it and deal with all those stuff later, but let's try to get one more point than our opponent.’”

Getting points by any means necessary is an area where the Tigers have thrived in Martin’s tenure. Missouri ranked No. 11 in the country in free throw percentage at 78% last year, and the roster’s consistency from last year has led to continued free throw success.

“We work on it a lot in practice,” junior guard Javon Pickett said. “People come in and work on it, so we know how big those are gonna be late in the stretch of a game. You got to knock those down, even early in the games, just making sure that we’re being consistent or not gonna freak those down.”

Aside from free throw shooting, the rest of the game’s stats favored the Illini.

Illinois hit 52.7% of its field goals to Missouri’s 47.2%. Missouri turned the ball over and fouled more than the Illini.

Two Missouri starters who have deep ties to Illinois, former Illini guard Mark Smith and former Illini commit Jeremiah Tilmon, had disappointing contests and fouled out.

The only stat that mattered was how many free throws went through the net, and the Tigers capitalized nearly every time they went to the free-throw line. Missouri’s only trip to the free throw line that resulted in zero points was sophomore forward Kobe Brown’s with two seconds left in the game.

“Those free throws are going to help us win games,” Pickett said. “I just feel like a lot of people are just focusing on those — locked in when they go to the line — and knocking them down.”

_Edited by Danny Ryerson | dryerson@themaneater.com

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