Brash Missouri turns back Illinois

Pat Forde

ST. LOUIS – With more than 22,000 people puckering and praying around him, in an arena drenched with tension, Phil Pressey lowered his head and went to the basket.

And went ham.

Pressey's Missouri Tigers had given away every bit of a 14-point lead to Illinois and trailed by one with less than three minutes to play. Brandon Paul had just dead-bounced a fluke 3-pointer off the back rim, then the front rim, then in. The orange-and-blue half of the Scottrade Center was roaring with hope that the Illini were going to steal this game from the undefeated-but-unraveling Tigers.

That's when the 5-foot-10 (ha!) Pressey slashed to the basket, darting around his defender like he was a totem pole. What he did next, amid tight quarters in a tight game, defied belief but defines Pressey's fearless game.

Illinois center Meyers Leonard stepped toward Pressey to stop his penetration, so he blithely whipped a behind-the-back pass to Ricardo Ratliffe, who laid it in for a 68-67 lead.

"When you've got a 7-1 monster down there like they do, you've got to be on your toes," Pressey explained. "I just made the pass when he came up."

Just made the pass? No college player else makes that Globetrotters pass at that crucial moment in that intense game. This was like Bruce Willis in one of the "Die Hard" movies, delivering some absurdly cheeky line in a life-and-death situation.

Except this was real, not Hollywood. And this was Pressey doing what these audacious and athletic Missouri Tigers do, irrespective of time and score, for better or worse.

Just ballin'.

Pressey's pass didn't win the game for Missouri – the Tigers lost the lead again, regained it with seven consecutive points keyed by their defense, then hung on for a 78-74 victory that moves them to 12-0. But that play was emblematic of how Mizzou took control of the game, and how Mizzou nearly lost the game as well.

These Tigers are quite the thrill ride – crazy athleticism coupled with an almost shocking confidence. No play seems too daring for them, no shot too quick, no moment too big, no need to apply the brakes. It's an admirable attitude for a group that really hasn't won enough to earn such assuredness – at least, it's admirable up to the point where it crosses the line to foolhardiness.

They will bring fans out of their chairs on nearly every play – sometimes to cheer a breathtaking fast break, sometimes to scream "Noooo!" when they jack up a wildly premature shot. There were a slew of those from Missouri's guards in the second half, as the Tigers slowly relinquished command to an Illini team that was not going to back down. That was an unwelcome backslide to the Mike Anderson offense of recent seasons.

"There's a fine line with a team that's athletic and really good in transition," said first-year coach Frank Haith. "You have to understand when to go and when not to go. We don't want to play at warp speed all the time."

That is Haith's challenge with the veteran bunch he inherited from Anderson – a challenge he has passed with Coach of the Year success so far. (And this is from a vocal critic of athletic director Mike Alden's hire in the spring.) Haith has brought an element of order to the chaos Anderson coached, specifically coherence to the offense. The result has been a radical improvement in efficiency.

[Recap: Missouri 78, Illinois 74]

Heading into this game, Missouri led the nation in effective field-goal percentage at 60 percent, according to Ken Pomeroy's statistics. Last season, Missouri was 65th in that category. The 2011-12 Tigers also are second in two-point field-goal percentage (up from 75th last season), 17th in 3-point percentage (up from 76th) and fifth in free-throw percentage (up from 51st).

"We're older," explained senior leader Kim English. "More structure. Defined roles."

That offensive definition has helped English blossom from a career sub-40 percent shooter into a guy hitting 54 percent of his shots and averaging a career-high 15.3 points a game. It has helped guard Marcus Denmon blossom into a leading man, averaging a career-high 18.7 points per game.

But it also has helped the rest of the cast. With Denmon and English combining to go 5-of-16 from the field and score just 16 total points Thursday, Missouri was rescued by everyone else.

Pressey and fellow diminutive guard Michael Dixon combined for 36 points and nine assists. Ratliffe added 14 points and made huge plays in the final minutes to save the game. Matt Pressey had 10 points, six rebounds and an insane follow-dunk to cap the first half. And backup big man Steve Moore was immense in the first half, rebounding, blocking shots, keeping loose balls alive and playing stout defense against Leonard.

Despite a season-ending injury to post player Laurence Bowers in early October, Missouri should have enough contributors to make a serious run at the Big 12 title – if the Tigers can refrain from backsliding in pressure situations against good defensive teams.

This was a pressure situation, and Illinois was a good defensive team. Missouri had won its first 11 games so easily – all by double digits – that the Tigers had yet to play with any late-game stress. That stress presented itself dramatically here, as the Illini regrouped and came back to make a game out of a potential runaway.

Illinois got 19 points and 10 rebounds from Paul, plus 14 points, 13 boards and five assists from Leonard. But the unexpected energizer was backup guard Joseph Bertrand, who made all nine of his shots and finished with 19 points. Not a bad showing for a guy who had scored a total of two points in Illinois' past six games.

To Missouri's credit, it was able to regroup and finish the game like a veteran team should.

"We can win the close ones," English assured.

[Photos: Thursday's highlights]

When it was over and the Tigers had captured this annual neutral-court brawl, English could dance his happy dance. He bounced from one foot to the other, waving three fingers for three straight victories at the roaring Missouri fans.

"I said we'd never lose to them again after my freshman year," English said, thinking back to the last of nine consecutive losses in the series from 2000-09.

English can leave Missouri in the spring having done his part to secure school braggin' rights. And if this Tigers team can find Haith's fine line between confidence and craziness, there will be bigger prizes ahead.

Maybe even the school's first-ever trip to the Final Four.

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