ST. LOUIS -- Illinois sophomore D.J. Richardson made a 3-pointer with 42.5 seconds remaining to cut Missouri's lead to a single point, at which point a different team would've inbounded the ball, slowed things, tried to get fouled or just shoot late in the shot clock, in the final 10 seconds of regulation. And by a different team, I mean a conventional team. But Missouri isn't a conventional team.
That's a team that has a strategy called back-at-you.
Seriously, that's what they call it.
"It's called back-at-you," Missouri's Marcus Denmon said. "Coach always calls it back-at-you."
The back-at-you strategy translated to game over here at the Scottrade Center late Wednesday because it led to a transition opportunity after Richardson's 3-pointer, and it happened so quickly that Illinois' Mike Tisdale got caught off guard and behind Laurence Bowers at the rim. Instinctively, Tisdale pushed Bowers in the lower back to try to prevent the easy bucket. But it was too late. The ball was already on its way in when Tisdale pushed his counterpart, and the foul was called an intentional foul because he didn't make a "basketball" play. Consequently, Bowers shot (and sank) two free throws, and that 62-61 lead with 42.5 seconds remaining was suddenly a 66-61 lead with 40.2 seconds remaining. Missouri then got the ball back (because of the intentional foul) and scored again (because the Illini's spirit was broken). So the Tigers added six points in seven seconds after Illinois cut their lead to one, and that sequence was what propelled them to a 75-64 victory in this 30th annual "Braggin' Rights" game.
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"We never get conservative," said Kim English, who finished with eight points, six rebounds and five assists for the No. 9 Tigers. "A different team would've inbounded it and ran the clock, but then it's a possession-game, and the Big Ten loves that. The Big Ten loves possession games. But we just like to go, go, go."
So they went, went, went. And if this nation has a more fun team to watch, please e-mail me their schedule because I'm gonna start booking trips. I've spent the first few weeks of this season bouncing around the country, and I've already seen Duke, Kansas, Syracuse, Kansas State, Michigan State, North Carolina, Kentucky, Memphis, Florida, Notre Dame, UNLV, Texas A&M, UCLA, Wisconsin, Georgia, Boston College and all sorts of schools play in person. I think Duke is better than Missouri. I think Kentucky has a higher ceiling. But strictly in terms of pure enjoyment from a sit-courtside-and-observe perspective, I don't think there's anybody I'd rather watch play than this Missouri team that's run by Mike Anderson, otherwise known as the mastermind of the "Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball."
The Tigers are scrappy and fun and relentless. They push the ball in the first minute and in the final minute, and they tend to make things exciting -- evidence being their overtime loss to Georgetown on Nov. 30, their nearly-blew-it win over Oregon on Dec. 2, their overtime win over Vanderbilt on Dec. 8, and Wednesday's win over No. 21 Illinois before an announced crowd of 21,634. Missouri is now 11-1 for the first time since the 1991-92 season, and March (or even April) could provide the school with its best finish under Anderson. What happens between now and then should be a blast to watch, either way. And, regardless, the Tigers are now assured of taking a two-game winning streak against Illinois into next year's 31st annual "Braggin' Rights" showdown.
That's not bad considering Illinois had previously won nine straight meetings.
That streak was from 2000 to 2008.
"But I wasn't on any of those teams," Missouri sophomore Michael Dixon said. "So I'm like, 'I've never lost to Illinois,' and I don't really plan on losing to them ever."
Or slowing down. Or getting conservative. First minute or final minute, it doesn't really matter. The Tigers will come at you early or come back at you late, and sometimes they do it so quickly that all you can do is push them in the back and watch the ball fall through the rim, and the game slip away.