ST. LOUIS — Wow! Give me my hearing back. I’ll wear earplugs next time.
This was the Thrilla in Manila times five.
As we infrequently see, there is a level athletes sometimes attain that can’t be duplicated night after night. Some call it an out-of-body experience — a zone — and that was experienced by everyone in the Scottrade Center early in the second half Saturday.
If the refs hadn’t been numbed, they would have issued boxing gloves and shoulder pads. They appeared to swallow their whistles in amazement as the bodies flew during a wondrous four- to five-minute period.
Amazingly, it was during this stretch that Illinois rallied from an eight-point deficit to leads of 51-50, 56-54 and 62-57 ... without shooting. Repeat, without shooting.
The Illini fought from 8:06 in the first half to 10:40 in the second half — a run of more than 17 minutes — in which their only field goals were layups. The Illini misfired on 23 shot attempts in those 17 minutes ... and still led ... but not for long.
Close doesn’t count
And so it developed that Illinois hung with Missouri’s gang of all-star transfers until the final minutes, Joe Bertrand missing an open trey that would have knotted the 73-70 score with 1:15 showing.
Up to this point, it has been conceded that these Illini would need extra-special jump shooting — particularly from the arc — to beat an opponent with Mizzou’s kind of penetration and inside power. But they missed open shots and, in the end, they turned loose the Tigers in transition off not-so-good shots.
Brandon Paul cashed 23 points with the help of 11 free throws, but his last-second trey left the Illini 8 for 32 from the arc and with an overall shooting percentage of 33.8.
This was a classic nevertheless.
“Our effort was outstanding,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “But we didn’t always play smart. Our hearts and minds were in the right place but, after we led (62-57), they executed and we didn’t in the final eight minutes.”
What this means to me, as one who has seen them shoot accurately before the mid-December slump, is that there is more to this team than three-point shooters.
The previously unbeaten Illini faced a demanding task Saturday. Few teams in the country possess as many individual stars as Missouri, and coach Frank Haith is still in the process of bringing these transfers together.
But he has Phil Pressey, and the Illini never got the junior guard under control, even though he missed his first 15 shots (he dished 11 assists).
And the Illini appeared helpless at times in dealing with the size and skills of Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi, who combined for 36 points and 24 rebounds.
Down for the count
These archrivals, engaged in the Midwest’s biggest annual basketball event in the Midway, declared war from the opening tipoff, and the high-intensity aspect was highlighted by a furious exchange of four consecutive three-pointers, the middle two by Illini Tyler Griffey and D.J. Richardson, as the UI ultimately built a 28-24 lead.
It was then that the might and muscle of Oriakhi, a 6-foot-9, 255-pound UConn transfer, took charge just as Illinois went stone cold. The Illini fell back by eight and trailed 41-35 at halftime even as Pressey struggled to score. Suddenly dominant inside, Oriakhi punished the losers with eight of his team’s last nine points before the break. And Missouri’s inside strength provided a seemingly insurmountable 58-35 edge on the boards.
How, you ask, can the Illini come within a missed trey of tying the game at 1:15 after clanking so many jumpers and being killed on the boards?
The answer is that they battled as though their lives depended on it.
“I loved our fight,” Groce said. “I absolutely loved it. We simply have to execute better.
“I’m thankful for the Christmas holidays, but I don’t like the idea of us going in different directions. We’ve got to stick together. We can’t let ourselves be defined by one loss. Our season won’t be defined by one loss.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.