For 2nd straight year, Illini win Border War

For 2nd straight year, Illini win Border War

  ST. LOUIS  They''d love to tell you this is what they had in mind all along, but none of them could do it with a straight face.

   A 16-point win over the 1995 national champs? Followed by a 16-point win in the Border War? Giving the Illini a six-game winning streak heading into the Big Ten season?

   Come on. Get real.

   "If you would have told me before the season that that''s how it was going to happen, I would have said we have an awful lot of work to do."

   Lon Kruger''s first bunch of Illini, 10-2 and likely to debut in the Top 25 on Monday, are about to ring in the new year like few could have predicted, thanks to their knack for bringing out the worst in opponents.

   On Saturday night, before a Border War record crowd of 22,371 at the Kiel Center, it was Missouri''s turn to stumble and bumble. The Tigers committed 27 turnovers in the face of Illinois'' full-court press, leading to their 85-69 demise.

   "To me, that was the best organized club we''ve played," said Norm Stewart, whose 7-4 Tigers previously fell to Clemson, Arkansas and Iowa. "As far as organization, shot selection, a good program, a good plan ... they were right up there."

   The Illini plan was to suffocate the Tigers with their press. That, and keep leading scorer Kelly Thames from going for another 25 points like he did in last year''s Tiger loss.

   The plan worked perfectly  the Tigers playing as if they had their hands tied on backward and Thames running into early foul trouble that kept his points (10) and minutes (16) down.

   "It was just a case of us saying ''You''re not going to do to us what you did last year,'' " Johnson said of the stop-Thames strategy.

   Missouri''s stop-Kiwane Garris plan didn''t work as well.

   Garris finished with a team-high 15 points and handed out a game-high nine assists. When the desperate Tigers tried to make a run late, it was Garris who stood in their way  hitting back-to-back layups to push the lead to a cozy 76-64 with 2:05 left.

   The win was the second in a row over Missouri for Garris, who as a freshman suffered one of his most embarrassing basketball moments in this series, missing two free throws with no time left in the second overtime of a three-OT Illini loss.

   "Only thing I wanted to do was just come out even," said Garris, 2-2 against Missouri. "I feel good about that."

   The Illini didn''t rely on Garris alone, getting 14 points apiece from Bryant Notree and Chris Gandy and 12 from Matt Heldman.

   Jerry Gee hit 4 of 5 shots. Johnson pestered Thames. Halim Abdullah added three steals.

   Everyone played.

   Everyone had a blast.

   "A lot of people had talked about the great atmosphere and the importance of this ball game," Kruger said. "It certainly wasn''t overbilled."

   Maybe Missouri was.

   "We just threw it around  no rhyme or reason," Stewart said. "You''ve got to have a purpose for throwing it."

   "You''ve got to give their defense a lot of the credit," said Tigers guard Jason Sutherland, who attempted just six shots and finished with 12 points.

   Sixteen of the Tiger turnovers came in the first half, the Illini using two Abdullah free throws, an Abdullah steal and an Abdullah 12-footer to take a 34-24 lead into the locker room.

   Abdullah was in because Garris was out, relegated to the bench after picking up his second foul with 6:04 left in the first half.

   "Halim came in and gave us a great six minutes," Kruger said. "If he can''t do that and Kiwane has to come back in and picks up his third foul, that changes Kiwane''s whole mentality in the second half."

   Turned out the Illini still needed Garris'' services, the final burial not coming until just a few minutes remained.

   The Tigers got it down to 50-44, but Illinois reeled off seven straight after that to reach the comfort zone. Garris had four of them, a sight Kruger was happy to see.

   "We talked to Kiwane in the locker room about going north and south more and being aggressive with his scoring," Kruger said. "I thought there was a point where he took over the game."