ST. LOUIS — Late in the second half of No. 12 Missouri’s 82-73 win against Illinois, Missouri forward Laurence Bowers was on the floor battling for a loose ball when he got tangled with Illini forward Sam McLaurin’s leg. Pushing ensued, words were exchanged and, after a brief scuffle,
Bowers and McLaurin each were assessed a technical foul.
“Things get emotional at times in this kind of atmosphere. Our players aren’t going to back down to anybody,” Illinois’ Brandon Paul said. “I just made sure I got in there and made sure it didn’t escalate, and I think the refs did a good job. It happens in these types of rivalry games.”
After the game, there didn’t appear to be bad feelings on either side. McLaurin and Bowers hugged and shared encouraging words when the teams shook hands after the game.
“It just got a little chippy; it was in the heat of the moment, guy fell on me, it was just chippy, it wasn’t really much to it,” Bowers said. “I thought we showed maturity coming together after that. It just got us fired up and Illinois.”
Since making 11 three-pointers in a win at Gonzaga, Illinois has been a bit off the mark. The Illini made six against Norfolk State, six against Eastern Kentucky and eight against the Tigers (8 of 32). It was the third time they attempted more than 30 three-pointers.
“We usually take a lot of good shots, and I think we took some questionable shots tonight, including myself, that didn’t allow us to get into the offense that we wanted to, and that kind of put us in a bind,” said Paul, who went 2 for 8 from long range.
Tyler Griffey made 4 of 7 to lead Illinois. D.J. Richardson finished 1 for 9.
“We’re going to shoot good threes,” UI coach JOHN Groce said. “Brandon, like any good captain, is going to take responsibility, but it wasn’t just him. ... Our quality of threes tonight wasn’t great. How do you get the best threes? This isn’t brain surgery. You get them in transition, you get offensive rebound kickouts, you get them off a post touch, you get them off drive-and-kick or you get them off of some type of set play that you run to put them at a disadvantage. Tonight, a lot of our threes weren’t coming from those means as much as they have in the past.”
Missouri entered the game third in the country with a rebounding margin of plus-13.3. That figure will go up after outrebounding the Illini 58-35.
It resulted in 44 points in the paint, and the Tigers’ 22 offensive rebounds led to 15 second-chance points.
“We’re disappointed that we got beat 58-35 on the glass. They’re big, and they’ve got depth,” Groce said. “We’ll look at the film. I only remember a couple in my mind when they were head-up blockouts and they just got it.”
Missouri point guard Phil Pressey missed his first 15 shots and finished 3 for 19. But he was probably the MVP Saturday. The 5-foot-11 junior recorded 11 assists, grabbed seven rebounds and finished with 12 points to lift the Tigers.
Missouri coach Frank Haith said even though Pressey’s shots weren’t falling, he controlled the game.
Pressey had a different take on the high volume of shots without having much success.
“I just try to stay in attack mode. When I’m not hitting my shot, I’m just trying to get my guys involved. Even though I was missing my shots, it was an opportunity for our bigs to clean up those misses,” Pressey said as Bowers, Jabari Brown and Haith broke into laughter. “My dad always told me, ‘If you can’t pass it, just throw it up and your big will get a rebound.’ When I see a big commit over, I know if I get it on the rim, I have guys like Laurence or one of our bigs, I know they can clean that up.”
Said Haith: “We can’t let anyone know that’s our game plan.”
Bowers said Pressey, who needs 89 assists to become the program’s all-time leader in that category, is like an extension of Haith on the floor.
“He’s a pass-first point guard; I think he’s the best point guard in the country,” Bowers said. “In the clutch, he made big plays for us and we benefited.”
Saturday’s game was the second in a Missouri uniform for Brown, who transferred from Oregon. The 6-5 guard became eligible at the end of the semester and made his Missouri debut in a blowout win against South Carolina State on Monday.
On Saturday, he had 18 points and seven rebounds in his first start.
“I think he scores the ball. I wasn’t worried about him shooting the other night because I know he can shoot,” Haith said. “But I thought he played pretty good defense, and he had seven rebounds.”
Robert Archibald hadn’t seen an Illinois game in person since December 2002, when the Illini played in Memphis. The former Illinois forward was a rookie with the Grizzlies.
But he was there Saturday.
“I’ve been following them on TV, enjoying it like everyone else. It’s been fun so far,” Archibald said.
Archibald just retired from a 10-year pro basketball career. He spent the bulk of his time playing in Europe. He capped off his career by playing for Great Britain at the 2012 London Olympics.
“It was fun, (an) amazing experience. I was very fortunate to get to do that,” he said. “It was incredible to be around that many elite athletes. Having it at home with the fan support and everything was a really special way to end my playing career.”
Archibald resides in Chicago, waiting to decide the next challenge.
“Taking some time off, trying to figure out what’s next,” he said. “I’m getting a chance to do some of this stuff that I missed out on the last 10 years, just trying to enjoy it all.”
Illinois signee Malcolm Hill, of nearby Belleville East, was a topic of conversation at the Scottrade Center before Saturday’s game. Hill, a 6-5 guard, scored a season-high 39 points in a win against Alton on Friday night.
“Coach told me I’m not shooting enough, so I just wanted to be more comfortable and help the team out,” Hill said.
Hill is getting back to full strength after missing three months this summer. Hill had a blood clot that forced doctors to remove a portion of a rib.
“I feel like I’m getting back to normal; I’ll say I’m about 95 percent,” he said. “Last year, I was averaging 30 points the last 10 games. I’m getting back to normal.”
He’s been a fan of Groce and his style.
“I really like how they play. It’s real aggressive and fast-paced. Coach Groce really knows what he’s doing,” Hill said.
Entering the season, Paul wasn’t on the radar of ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes as far as players to keep an eye on in the NBA draft.
Earlier in the week, Dykes picked his top player at each position in the country. Paul was his top 2 guard.
“He’s obviously really bought in at a high, high level with what John has done with him. He had been a yo-yo through the years, all over the place.
He’s been consistent,” said Dykes, who called the game for ESPN2. “He’s always been able to shoot the ball, but now he’s more than a shooter.
He’s really good off the on-ball screen action, he’s defending his tail off, he’s rebounding, he’s a leader, he’s a voice. He’s got a complete game, and as long as he stays consistent, I think he’s a first-round draft pick.”
Paul entered the game as one of three players in the country leading his team in scoring, rebounds, assists and steals.
“I think the change in the offense really suits his game. I don’t think he’s a great passer, but he’s really good with the ball in his hands, and this offense, he has the ball in his hands a lot. That’s what the NBA equates to as well,” Dykes said. “I like his size. He’s a really solid player in every facet of the game, and he can really get shots up. If you’re going to have an NBA career, you have to be able to get shots up, and he can get shots up.”
Dykes followed Groce’s career at Ohio and isn’t surprised with the early success this season.
“His system is perfect for what he inherited. I don’t think it was a great passing team playing a passing-game offense in the past. They play really, really hard, and I think he instilled in them automatically how tough and how hard and how together you have to play,” Dykes said. “The level that they’ve bought in, to me they’re still getting better. They look like a bunch of hungry guys in practice. They’re saying, ‘Tell me more, Coach. What else do I need to do?’ ”
The biggest key is the players have helped make the transition easier.
“He’s got their attention. The question will be when they get knocked to the canvas, what happens when they get back up?” he said. “They haven’t been knocked down yet. At some point they will, and how will they respond to that?”
Dykes said he’s usually in the studio watching on television and always hoped to one day get the assignment.
“It’s as good an atmosphere we have in college ball,” he said. “With the Indiana-Kentucky series no longer being played, I think this is the rivalry game in nonconference ball between two teams not in the same state. This is it now.”
Since he committed to Illinois about a week and a half ago, Michael Finke has been overwhelmed with support from people he knows and those he doesn’t know.
I’ve had a lot of congratulations, and people are looking forward to seeing me play. I’m just trying to get stronger,” the Centennial product said from his courtside seats Saturday.
In the first game after he committed, Centennial students dressed in orange and blue against Normal West.
“It was awesome. They told me they were planning to do that. When I saw that out there, it meant a lot,” he said.
He’s getting more attention from opposing defenses now, too.
“I noticed yesterday against Danville, they try to hug me or something, which they should. It’s smart,” he said.
After Saturday’s contest, most of the Illini returned to Champaign on a charter bus and then planned to make their way home for Christmas.
Director of basketball operations Mark Morris said Ibby Djimde, Devin Langford and McLaurin would spend the night in St. Louis and fly home in the morning.
Morris is from upstate New York and was planning to fly home, too. The area was hit with a serious snow storm, so he was hoping he’d be able to fly out of Lambert International Airport.
Griffey will remain in St. Louis. He’s from nearby Wildwood, Mo.