Missouri pops Champaign, stuns Fighting Illini

The Tigers led wire to wire and held on for an 81-79 victory over No. 6 Illinois.

Ayo Dosunmu went crazy, scoring 36 points on ridiculously efficient shooting. Mark Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon combined for eight points and four rebounds, both fouling out of the game. Illinois outscored Missouri 22-12 in the final nine minutes of that wild, wild game.

Based on any logic whatsoever, there is no conceivable way Missouri could have won this game.

It didn’t matter.

Somehow, Missouri led nearly wire to wire in a game that made no sense and held on to defeat the No. 6 team in the country, 81-78. The Tigers are 5-0 and will almost certainly be ranked in next week’s AP Poll.

“Like I say to our guys, ‘Let’s get one more point, and we’re good to go,’” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “We can deal with all the other stuff later. But let’s try to get one more point than our opponent.”

The only part of Missouri’s win over the Illini that made sense: For the third year in a row, Javon Pickett played his best basketball against Illinois.

The junior guard came off the bench and scored 14 points on six of eight shooting. He also locked down talented freshman Adam Miller, who only hit one shot all evening.

Last year, Pickett scored 17 on the Illini. The year before, 16. How does he do it?

“I really don’t know,” Pickett said. “Just going out there, trying to win. It’s a rivalry game, so everybody’s just locked in, wanting to go out there and bring the trophy back. Of course, I’m from Illinois. So [I’m] just making sure to get the job done.”

Pickett, Xavier Pinson, Kobe Brown and Dru Smith were able to pick up the slack with Tilmon and Mark Smith playing poor games. Each finished in double-figures and found a specific way to counter one of Illinois’ star players.

Pinson found himself matched up against freshman guard Andre Curbelo, who tends to play with his hair on fire — much like Pinson, only with significantly more hair.

Pinson and Curbelo went back and forth at lightning speed. They contributed heavily to the fast-paced nature of the game, and occasionally, Pinson and the Tigers found a way to turn Curbelo’s aggressiveness against him.

“I knew what to expect,” Pinson said. “He was a real good point guard. He had his moments where he kind of took off. He’s real good, but we have to stick together as a team to try to contain him, so we can get the win.”

Brown, who Martin expects to be a game-changing contributor, shot the ball better than usual, hitting two of five from deep. However, Martin lauded his aggressiveness at points in the game.

Brown thrives when he attacks the basket, and Missouri worked to get him matchups against 7-foot center Kofi Cockburn. Cockburn was difficult to defend inside, especially with Tilmon in foul trouble for most of the night, but Martin believed he could use Brown — and other guards and smaller forwards — to exploit his lack of mobility.

“Kobe is good off the bounce,” Martin said. “You got a big guy like that on him, he can make plays, so I thought he was pretty solid offensively. He has to get better on the defensive side of the ball.”

Finally, Dru Smith, who led the team with 18 points, drew the toughest assignment of the night: Dosunmu, who nearly won it for Illinois by himself.

“I was getting stuck on those ball screens there in the second half,” Dru Smith said. “I was having my heels on the three-point line, and I just felt like I was getting hit every time, so I asked Coach [Martin] if I could pick them up a little higher, just to give me a better chance to get some of those, and I was able to do that toward the end.”

Did Dru Smith do his job perfectly? Of course not. None of them did, with the possible exception of Pickett. Curbelo scored 14, Brown could have been even more aggressive against Cockburn and there aren’t many words that can describe what Dosunmu did to Missouri tonight.

All across the roster, the Tigers could have been better. That rang true in the final minutes, when Missouri nearly let its lead slip away. Back-to-back dunks from Cockburn brought the lead to within one with four-and-a-half minutes on the clock, and Dosunmu tied at 76 shortly thereafter.

At that point, anyone could be forgiven for assuming Illinois was about to take control, as they were beginning to show why they came in as the No. 6 team in the nation. But Missouri’s defense picked itself up, Dosunmu began to appear human and the Tigers took a three-point lead with less than a minute to go.

“They’ve been resilient,” Martin said. “They’ve shown a tremendous amount of grit and fight.”

On Illinois’ final possession, Dosunmu took it up the court and attempted a running 3-pointer. It clanged off the iron with two seconds left. He got the ball back with a chance for a final heave, but it went wide right.

That was it. It was over.

When the AP Top 25 comes out next week, Martin knows that Missouri has to be a part of it. The team has won all of its five games, including a true road game, a neutral-site win over a ranked team and tonight, an upset of the vaunted Illini.

“If we’re not ranked, then all of it is foolishness, anyway,” Martin said. “What’s the point of having it?”

Edited by Danny Ryerson | dryerson@themaneater.com

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