There’s a reason Missouri freshman point guard Blake Harris starts games but rarely finishes them — and it’s because of moments like the one that occurred with fewer than 6 minutes remaining in Mizzou’s 70-64 loss to Illinois on Saturday.
He was racing down the court, around defenders with his team down by 6 points. Harris’ dribble was rising too high. He lost control, and the basketball slipped into an Illini defender’s possession.
Harris closed his eyes, held his hands out in front of him with his palms up and screamed. He had blown what turned out to be Mizzou’s greatest chance at closing in on Illinois and winning Missouri’s first Braggin’ Rights game since 2012. Instead, moments later, Illinois hit a three-pointer to end a nearly 6-minute drought of field goals, and the Illini (9-5) kept the Tigers (10-3) at arm’s length the rest of the way.
“Now he understands, and he sees it more,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said of Harris recognizing freshman mistakes. “ … If he’s playing like that, with that level of energy, you have to go with him, because he’s only going to grow.”
Earlier in the second half, Harris showed the progress he’s made at point guard, the position Martin thinks is hardest for true freshman to transition into from high school. Harris finished with 10 points, four rebounds and two assists, but his defense was more impressive. It was the reason Missouri almost recovered from its worst half of the season, falling behind 42-22 to the Illini in the first 20 minutes.
On Mizzou’s opening possession of the second half, Harris dived to the floor for a loose ball, and then found Kassius Robertson, who converted an and-one layup.
Harris then stole the ball from Illinois guard Te’Jon Lucas and dunked. He pressed his face inches from Lucas’ following the basket and said enough within earshot of a referee to receive a technical foul. But the play excited the Tigers. So did the freshman point guard’s next defensive play, when it appeared he might have earned a jump ball but referees called a foul instead.
Martin took Harris out of the game to calm him down, but only after the Tigers had recaptured momentum.
Mizzou went on a 16-6 run over the opening 7 minutes of the second half, while Illinois failed to make a field goal. The final basket of that run, a Harris layup, cut the Illinois lead to 10 for the second time in that half. The game had not been closer since more than 5 minutes remained in the first half.
“I told our staff at halftime this won’t be as easy as that was in the first half,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.
The Tigers had told themselves this week that they would be prepared to play in this environment, a sold-out Scottrade Center with a split crowd and a special set of boos reserved for freshman center Jeremiah Tilmon, who once signed a letter of intent to play for the Illini. The Tigers believed a scrimmage against Kansas at the Sprint Center had prepared them.
It turns out they weren’t prepared. At least not for the first 20 minutes.
“Some of the guys may have been rattled for whatever reason,” said Missouri senior Jordan Barnett, who scored 19 points. “The crowd may have something to do with that. We can’t let that happen.”
After turning the ball over 21 times against Stephen F. Austin earlier this week, Missouri did so again Saturday. The Tigers struggled to get the ball down low to Tilmon, who often triggers the offense by drawing defenders in, which leads to open threes. Barnett said Illinois did a good job of denying the ball from getting to players on the wings, too.
Missouri fell down 10-2 early, then 17-5.
About 8 minutes into the game, Barnett threw a pass down the sideline to Jordan Geist, who was near an Illinois defender and bobbled it before it went out of bounds. A timeout followed that, and as Geist made his way back to the bench, he looked at the ref next to him and yelled, “That’s a foul!”
Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. But this play wasn’t a one-off. Geist had four turnovers, and so did Jontay Porter. Harris and Terrence Phillips each had three.
Underwood — who used to coach at Stephen F. Austin, a team that still plays similar to his defensive style — believed watching Mizzou’s game against the Lumberjacks provided an advantage that helped his team stomp on the Tigers in the first half.
“It seemed like we turned the ball over more than we shot,” Barnett said of the first half.
Almost. Mizzou turned the ball over 16 times in the first half. It attempted 24 shots and made just eight of them. The Tigers were 2 of 10 on three-pointers.
Robertson led Missouri with 22 points. Tilmon had seven points and seven rebounds. But Missouri received no points from its bench.
Martin was content with most of MU’s shot selection. But he pointed out missed threes by Phillips and Porter that he didn’t think should have happened.
Phillips missed one three with just more than 5 minutes left and MU down by seven points. He began to attempt a second one on the next possession … but ended up never releasing the ball and traveling instead.
The Tigers don’t play again until Jan. 3 at South Carolina, where they will begin Southeastern Conference play. So they’ll have time to relive the first half that set them too far behind.
“I thought we threw the first punch,” Underwood said. “Put them on their heels.”