ST. LOUIS — Phil Pressey stood near mid-court waving toward the Missouri crowd nearby, a cage-match survivor, the junior guard a reason why the Tigers earned their signature victory to date. This Braggin’ Rights game was a pre-Christmas gift wrapped in gauze, one that may springboard the Tigers to a promising future.
No. 12 Mizzou crawled from this hardwood ring at Scottrade Center bruised, bloodied and with both eyes blackened. An 82-73 victory over No. 10 Illinois on Saturday was an unholy wrestling match, and Pressey and others met to exhale. Arms were raised. Gold jerseys were popped. Tigers players raced toward a tunnel and slapped hands that dangled over a rail — all while forgetting about a trophy presentation that was supposed to take place about 20 feet behind them.
Having fun? Buckle in. Stay awhile. For Mizzou, this may only be the start.
“In order to win games like this — toughness is such a key word,” said Missouri coach Frank Haith, whose team earned a fourth consecutive victory in this series, now the Tigers’ longest active regular-season rivalry. “I thought our guys exuded that. They played with great toughness to finish the game out.”
Haith has done this dance long enough to know that early style points don’t often translate to March. It’s the teeth chipped in mud fights that show a team’s heart. A 51-point victory over South Carolina State is a reflex hammer to the knee. Edging Illinois, which entered as one of college basketball’s six remaining unbeatens, is a CT scan that reveals character.
We learned many things Saturday about what makes these Tigers tick. At times, they’re as pretty as Death Valley on a July afternoon (they shot 3 of 20 during one second-half stretch). But they can also play with the flair of a fireworks display over the National Mall (they closed on a 10-3 run).
Here’s why they’re dangerous moving forward: Pressey can rope-a-dope with the best of them. He missed 16-of-19 shots — by far his worst performance from the floor this year — but also had a season-high 11 assists. He was a weapon because he was unpredictable. One second, he clanked bricks; the next, he served up gold, like when he found senior forward Laurence Bowers for a dunk to put Missouri ahead 75-70 with one minute left.
“I just try to stay in attack mode,” said Pressey, who finished with 12 points. “If I’m not hitting my shot, I’m just trying to get my guys involved as well. Even though I was missing those shots, I felt like it was an opportunity for our bigs to clean up those misses.”
It’s enticing to consider where Missouri can go from here. Make no mistake: The Tigers are still searching themselves. They looked sluggish during a four-minute, second-half stretch in which the Fighting Illini turned a 48-39 deficit into a 51-50 lead. With so many new faces — Pressey and Bowers are the only players with previous program experience before this season — lulls will happen. Growing pains are part of their experiment.
But look at the schedule. UCLA is vulnerable. Kentucky looks less strong than last season. Overall, the Southeastern Conference is a dumpster fire of bad; Saturday alone, Florida (to Kansas State), Alabama (to Mercer), Texas A&M (to Southern), Ole Miss (to Indiana State) and Auburn (to Winthrop) all suffered embarrassing defeats.
So why not picture something large? Why can’t these Tigers achieve more than last season?
“It feels so good to go out on top, as far as this rivalry game,” said Bowers, who finished with a team-high 23 points. “I really wanted to win this game. It was just a personal thing. Watching how great of a game it was last year and seeing how my teammates pulled it out, I definitely wanted to come out and have that same performance to top it. We got the win, so I’m going to have a Merry Christmas.”
True, but what happens after New Year’s Day will be most telling. Likely, Mizzou will be ranked within the top 10 before a trip to Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 28. If the Tigers survive, their slate looks as open as a three-on-one fast break.
A trip to Kentucky and two games against Florida will be tests. But the SEC looks so weak that Missouri could start a brushfire within a league where basketball season serves as a countdown to spring football on most campuses.
What, exactly, will we learn about the Tigers before March? Glimpses against strong competition may be few. That makes chances to study them against an opponent of Illinois’ caliber more valuable.
“We didn’t rush things,” Haith said. “In fact, when we were down, we executed better than we were when we were up. I thought we took some quick shots when we had the lead and allowed Illinois to go on runs. In a game like this with two high-level teams, the runs are going to happen. It’s just how you handle yourself so you don’t let it spiral. I thought our guys did a great job of that.”
This Braggin’ Rights game was a slugfest, a struggle, a heavyweight fight that went the distance. It was grimy, a show, and it ended in a fitting way. With deep breaths. With a release.
Buckle in. For the Tigers, this may only be the beginning. That could be a sight to behold.