Anyone who watched Missouri and Illinois battle in the annual Braggin' Rights game tonight at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis had to be convinced through the first 35 minutes that point guard Phil Pressey would be the goat if the Tigers lost.
But anyone who watched the final 5 minutes knows Pressey is chiefly responsible for the Tigers 82-73 win and knocking Illinois from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Pressey missed the first 15 shots he attempted. The Tigers' point guard didn't get one to fall through the nylon until 4 minutes, 12 seconds remained in the game. Yet, when the final horn sounded, Pressey was three rebounds shy of a triple-double and he seemed to be involved in every key play down the stretch.
The signature moment came as the final minute arrived with the Tigers holding a three-point lead. Pressey drove underneath the basket and seemed to have nowhere to go. He fired a no-look bounce pass through traffic to Laurence Bowers for a jam just when it seemed he had run out of room.
It was that kind of night for Missouri's spark plug. Headscratching play or shot selection in one moment. Maestro the next.
Pressey finished with 12 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists and the Tigers beat the Illini for the fourth consecutive time. It was a huge help that Missouri outrebounded Illinois 51-29.
No one on the Illinois roster has won the Braggin' Rights game and the seniors on this year's team will leave the program having never tasted victory over the Tigers. It wasn't that long ago that those roles were reversed in this rivalry.
The Illini have been one of the biggest surprises so far this season and while they lost for the first time tonight, the performance did nothing but strengthen the argument they are a good team with the potential to play even better. Had they done a better job on the boards tonight, the Illini could easily be 13-0 even with Pressey making plays down the stretch.
Pressey and Bowers were the only Tigers who had played in the game and they hadn't played in the game together previously. Each had missed one of the previous two games with an injury. Yet, theses Tigers, a collection of newcomers and transfers didn't wilt under the pressure when Illinois took the lead in the second half.
Though he seems to have some helter skelter moments, Pressey also has a knack for overcoming mistakes or poor shot choices in the blink of an eye to make a play the next time he gets a chance, or the time after that.
This is nothing new for Pressey. He had made fewer than 30 percent of his field goal attempts in three of his previous four games, including a 4-for-18 performance against Southeast Missouri State earlier this month. In that same game, Pressey scored 17 points by getting to the foul line and he grabbed seven rebounds while dishing five assists.
Illinois coach John Groce became just the second coach to lose his first game in the series, joining former Missouri coach Mike Anderson, who lost in 2006.
Missouri improved to 10-1 and looks like a contender in the SEC. The Tigers have a enviable blend of rebounding, post depth and perimeter playmaking. They also continue to have their share of moments that will make fans pull their hair out, a healthy dose of those come courtesy of Pressey.
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