ST. LOUIS — Not many players could miss their first 15 shots and still somehow help account for 34 points and be seen as the offensive key in a possible season-defining victory.
Phil Pressey is apparently not like most players.
The talented Mizzou guard kept penetrating the lane, dishing assists and hitting three huge buckets down the stretch to overcome a horrid shooting day to lead the 12th-ranked Tigers to an impressive 82-73 win over No. 10 Illinois in the annual Braggin’ Rights game at Scottrade Center.
Pressey wasn’t afraid to keep letting it fly after going 0-for-8 in the first half and 0-for-15 in the first 35 minutes. But as the shots continued to miss, his impact on the game kept getting stronger thanks to a season-high 11 assists — many of which came on impressive drives and dishes to open teammates.
“Even though he wasn’t making shots, he was controlling the game,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “(Mizzou forward) Laurence (Bowers) said it best. He makes guys around him better and once he settled down, he took a lot of those shots early. Once he settled down I thought he made some good plays in a stretch where we needed him.
“He’s a valuable guy. We need to bring some other guys along that can handle the ball in those clutch times, but obviously he was at a level where I could not afford to take him out.”
It was about as odd a stat line as you’ll see in college basketball for much of the game. As the missed shots continued to grow, so did his number of assists. Pressey was either missing a shot or recording an assist on what seemed like every possession.
His first bucket, a 10-foot floater with 4:11 left to play, was his first make in 16 attempts and put Mizzou up 70-64 in what became one of the biggest shots of the game.
Pressey added two layups in the final minute and went 6-for-6 from the free-throw line to finish with 12 points on 3-of-19 shooting. Combined with his 11 assists that resulted in nine two-point buckets and a pair of 3-pointers, the shifty 5-11 guard helped account for nearly half of the Tigers’ 82 points.
“I just try to stay in attack zone,” Pressey said. “If I’m not hitting my shot, I’m just trying to get my guys the ball as well. Even though I was missing those shots, I felt like it was an opportunity for our ‘bigs’ to clean up those misses.
“My dad always told me if you can’t pass it, just throw it up there and your ‘big’ can get a rebound. When I see a ‘big’ coming over, I know if I can get it on the rim, I know I have guys like Laurence (Bowers) and the rest of them that can clean it up.”
Sitting a few feet away as the media laughed at Pressey’s explanation during the postgame news conference was Haith, who quipped, “Can’t let anybody know that’s our game plan.”
Pressey also impacted the game on defense, locking up talented Illinois guard Brandon Paul and limiting him for much of the second half.
Paul had 16 points in the first half but just seven in the second half while being guarded by Pressey. Illinois’ leading scorer had just four points for much of the second half until a desperation 3 in the final seconds as Pressey’s swarming pressure defense gave Paul noticeable fits.
Pressey also tied a season-high with seven rebounds and had a steal in a game-high 39 minutes. Whether it was his defense, rebounding or his ability to create open shots for his teammates, Pressey didn’t seem to let his rough shooting night bother him.
Those on the other side of the court noticed.
“I thought he was dynamic,” Illinois coach John Groce said of Pressey. “In terms of getting inside the lane, he’s as good a point guard as we’ve played so far through 13 games. He’s special in that regard. Obviously he didn’t shoot the ball well tonight, but his paint touches through dribble penetration I thought led to the rebounding (58-35 advantage for Missouri).
“He puts a lot of pressure on your defense and then he puts pressure on your defense in transition because he’s so fast, trying to get him corralled or under control is not easy. We didn’t do as good a job there as we wanted to.”
Pressey had a similar rough shooting game earlier this year against Southeast Missouri State, going 3-for-14 in the first half as the Tigers fell behind 45-35 at the break. But he finished with seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and 17 points to lead Missouri to victory.
When Illinois used a 12-2 run early in the second half to take the lead on Saturday, his teammates credited Pressey with keeping them upbeat in the huddle and leading them back. Pressey’s his first bucket capped a 13-2 run for Missouri which essentially won the the game.
“He’s the coach on the floor,” said Bowers, who had 23 points and 10 rebounds. “I definitely think he’s the best point guard in the nation. If he can’t get his offense going, he definitely gets everybody else going. He’s a pass-first point guard, but today he struggled with his shot, but in the clutch he made big plays for us and we benefited.”
At some point most players would just stop shooting or even stop competing. An off night would be extremely frustrating and demoralizing for most. But not Phil Pressey. He kept shooting and kept playing.
The Tigers picked up a huge non-conference win because of it.