Dec. 22, 2013
By Derek Neal, Associate Director of Athletic Communications
Illinois 65, No. 23 Missouri 64
Braggin' Rights Trophy Comes Home
|Other Game Notes|
Six different Illini hit a three-pointer in the first half (Abrams, Bertrand, Egwu, Ekey, Nunn, Rice) as Illinois started off the game 6-of-10 from behind the arc. After shooting just three free throws in the first 20 minutes of play (1-of-3), the Illini got to the line 15 times in the second half (10-of-15).
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One of the best rivalries in college basketball lived up to the hype on Saturday, with the Illini taking back the coveted Braggin' Rights trophy for the first time since 2008 with a 65-64 win over No. 23 Missouri. It happened in thrilling fashion, with each team making big shots down the stretch and one side of the sold-out Scottrade Center erupting every time the game see-sawed back and forth. In the end, it was two free throws by UI point guard Tracy Abrams with 4.6 seconds left that provided the winning margin.
"That's two years in a row where you get done coaching this game and you're just exhausted," head coach John Groce said after the victory. "That was a high-level game. It's got that feeling of a heavyweight boxing match. I thought we were really tough and really together."
In the early going it didn't look good for the Orange and Blue. The Illini fell behind 8-0 and 15-6 in the opening minutes, but a 10-0 scoring run and suffocating defense that held the Tigers scoreless for over four minutes gave the Illini their first lead of the game and, more importantly, sent a message to the Tigers that they had a battle on their hands. The final 10 minutes of the half were controlled by the Illini, who went into halftime with a 31-27 lead.
"I thought the biggest juncture in the game was when we got down 15-6," Groce said of the team's early resiliency. "We got off to a slow start. We looked a little tentative, similar to how we looked at the end of the game against Oregon. I thought that key was finding a way to scratch and claw our way back into the game and finish the half strong. Our execution was okay, but I thought we played with toughness all night."
The second half was much like the first, with Mizzou taking control with a 14-2 run to lead 53-46, sending the golden-clad half of the arena into a frenzy. But the Fighting Illini stormed back with a 9-0 run to retake the lead, 55-53, bringing the orange-shirted half to its feet as chants of I-L-L...I-N-I echoed through the Scottrade Center. No matter what happened, half of the nearly 22,000 in attendance were screaming, making the Braggin' Rights game one of the most electric and unique atmospheres in the country.
"It was definitely intense out there," senior Jon Ekey. "Probably one of the craziest games I've ever been a part of. No matter what happened, someone was yelling or booing or just going crazy."
In the end, thanks to a clutch three by Ekey with 47 seconds left and the game-winning free throws by Abrams, it was the orange Illini crowd that made all the noise.
While Illinois has dominated the overall series 21-12, it had been four long years since the Fighting Illini hoisted the Braggin' Rights trophy, meaning last year's senior class of Tyler Griffey, Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson never walked off the court at Scottrade Center victorious. That fact was not lost on Groce and this year's team.
"I couldn't help but think of the five seniors from last year," Groce said. "My first thought went to those guys and what they meant to me, my family and our program as we worked last year to try to lay down a foundation. I feel indebted to those guys. They certainly deserve a lot of credit when things like this happen."
"We're definitely excited about the win," Abrams said. "But I was just thinking about our former guys (last year's seniors) and how those guys never got one. It was an opportunity to get one for them. I can't really explain the feelings that were going on."
Abrams, Illini Deliver in Clutch
Tracy Abrams has had an up and down season so far. Saturday night was, without question, one of the ups. The junior guard scored 14 of his team-high 22 points in the second half, including driving and drawing a foul with 4.6 seconds left, and then calmly knocking down the two game-winning free throws to help the Illini get program win No. 1,700.
According to Groce, it wasn't just Abrams' play on the court that led to the Illini victory, but also his leadership in the huddle and leading up to the game.
"He was really locked in," Groce said. "There's no question he's made a lot of strides in terms of vocal leadership. He's a tough dude. In terms of leading, I think he's really grabbed onto it and gravitated to it. He's become much better in that area and that showed."
While it was Abrams who drew the foul and hit the game winning free throws, the Illini also got a huge bucket by Ekey, a three-pointer with 47 seconds left to put the Illini up one. Then a free throw by Rayvonte Rice and a three by Mizzou's Jabari Brown set up Abrams' heroics at the end.
It was the fourth game this season that was decided by three points or less, with the Illini improving to 3-1 in those games. Earlier in the season, Illinois had back-to-back two-point wins against IPFW and at UNLV, and also had a three-point loss at Georgia Tech, a game the Illini let slip away. After letting another late lead slip away in a 71-64 loss at No. 15 Oregon last Saturday, the Illini got a confidence boost by finding a way to win down the stretch.
"We made some good plays late and our guys came up big defensively," Groce said of the team's play in crunch time. "We dug out some loose balls, made some plays, made some free throws. I'm proud of our guys for finding away to beat a very good basketball team."