EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: Bill Self's first Braggin' Rights game resulted in a win, kicking off a nine-game winning streak by the Illini in the series in St. Louis.
Date: Dec.. 222. 2000
Headline: Illini end Border War slump
By JIM ROSSOW
ST. LOUIS – As the country's fifth-ranked team, as a big Border War favorite, as a group of veterans who have played in more pressure cookers this season than you can shake a Top 25 poll at, Illinois had every reason to treat Thursday's breakthrough performance with a shrug of the shoulder.
Then Sergio McClain threw the basketball toward the Savvis Center ceiling, the rafters preventing it from going as high as the Arch. With the heave went any chance of masking the joy Illinois got out of a win as crazy as Wesley Stoke's hair.
"Like winning an NCAA title game," Marcus Griffin said. "That's how I feel right now. You can't believe the relief we all feel right now."
After ending a three-year Border War losing streak, after conquering demons dressed as Missouri Tigers, after taking another huge step up the national rankings, Illinois did something it hasn't done this season:
It celebrated like kids, using up whatever energy it had left after an 86-81 overtime classic.
McClain hugged everyone in sight, nearly squeezing the life out of Bill Self. Lucas Johnson grabbed the Border War trophy like it was an opposing forward, waving it to a throng of Illinois fans. And players and coaches posed for more pictures afterward than the Globetrotters do after one of their exhibitions.
"The players, their front is that they take it one game at a time, but deep down inside this one was a really big one," Self said. "It showed tonight. This one was big."
And close. And scary. And about time.
"I've put up with three years of losing to those guys," McClain said. "To finally beat them means everything to me. I wanted to go out in style, and that's what we did."
The Illini, now 9-2 and riding a five-game winning streak, needed all hands on deck to beat the unranked Tigers, who finished their Big Ten swing 1-2.
They needed Brian Cook's career-high 25-point outburst, 23 coming in a first half that saw Missouri race to leads of up to nine points. Cook also grabbed 11 rebounds, his first double-digit effort since the Maui Invitational opener.
"That's the best half anybody has played for us this year," Self said. "He was awesome."
The Illini needed Frank Williams to take over the way he did against Seton Hall. The sophomore finished with 18 points, none bigger than his jumper that tied the game at 72 and forced overtime.
"Frank made up his mind he was going to take over," Griffin said.
Williams started overtime with a basket, forced a Missouri turnover and later converted a conventional three-point play to put the UI ahead 83-76 with 2:03 left.
Self realizes Williams can dominate a game when he puts his mind to it. So does McClain, who yelled at his high school teammate late in the game for all 22,089 fans – the biggest crowd to watch an Illini game this season – to see.
"He did what a good teammate is supposed to do," Williams said. "He said, 'Frank, quit acting like a punk and get the ball.' "
Williams, McClain and Griffin scored the UI's first 12 points in overtime. No big deal, really.
"We're used to this kind of situation," McClain said.
Added Self: "That's why those guys won four state titles in a row."
And one Border War game. At least.
Williams gets another opportunity, but for McClain and Griffin, Thursday was their last chance.
As usual, Missouri (7-3) used passion and pizzazz to shake the Illini in the second half. Three of the last four times the Illini went to St. Louis with a national ranking, the Tigers pulled off upsets, including a year ago.
With two minutes left in regulation, Missouri had No. 4 in sight. It led 70-68 and had possession. But Stokes, a freshman guard with a unique look, forced a pair of off-target jumpers to give Williams a crack at forcing overtime.
"It was beginning to feel like last year," Lucas Johnson said. "And I didn't like that feeling."
But Kareem Rush, Missouri's leading scorer, fouled out, held to 11 points by McClain's aggressive defense. And Clarence Gilbert eventually tired, 23 shots sapping his energy in overtime. And Brian Grawer, who was 3-0 against Illinois, followed Rush to the bench with five fouls.
Illinois cherished each moment.
"The last chance we've felt this good? Probably the Ohio State game last year," Johnson said.
That's when Williams beat the buzzer and the Buckeyes with a three-pointer.
"I can't describe it," Cory Bradford said. "It's the first time we've responded well when things started going Missouri's way. It was nice to see."
So was Stanford's win against No. 1 Duke. And No. 4 Tennessee's loss earlier this week.
Beat Texas on Saturday, and Illinois has a chance to move to No. 3. Not that Self was in the rankings mode afterward. He still was appreciating the atmosphere and outcome of a rivalry he compared to Texas-Oklahoma in football.
"I'm not that big of a football fan," Self said. "This was a lot better."