ST. LOUIS — With about 12 minutes to play in No. 12 Missouri’s 82-73 win against No. 10 Illinois, Tigers big man Alex Oriakhi and Illinois point guard Tracy Abrams battled for a rebound.
Abrams won. And before he began dribbling upcourt, he delivered a menacing stare directly at Oriakhi.
Abrams goes 6-foot-1, 185 pounds. Oriakhi (13 points, game-high 14 rebounds) is a tad bigger (6-9, 255).
Illinois might not win all its games. And John Groce’s Illini aren’t going to light up the nets from the outside like they did early in the season.
But this much was clear in front of a raucous 22,139 fans at the Scottrade Center: They’ll battle.
“My guys showed me something tonight. They showed me some fight and played with great passion, and I’m really proud of them for that,” Groce said.
It’ll take more than grit to survive in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten, which begins after the calendar flips to 2013.
The Illini (12-1), who entered the game making a nation-best 10 three-pointers per game, made eight against the Tigers (10-1) on 32 tries.
They were outrebounded by the bigger Missouri frontcourt 58-35, gave up 44 points in the paint (Laurence Bowers was a beast) and lost for the fourth straight time in the annual rivalry game.
Through all that, Illinois, which got a team-high 23 points from Brandon Paul (eight rebounds, five assists), pulled to within 72-70 on a three-pointer by local boy Tyler Griffey (14 points) with 2:13 remaining.
“Hats off to Mizzou; they came to play. They executed better than us,” Griffey said. “I’m happy with the way our team played. Our guys, we battled. It’s an unbelievable environment.”
Joseph Bertrand added 13 points and Nnanna Egwu recorded career highs with 12 points and nine rebounds as a Groce-coached team lost for the third time in 25 games.
“We fought, we swung, we competed,” Groce said. “We don’t allow one game to define us. I know it’s an important game. It’s a rivalry game, and we have respect for that. We’re going to play 35-plus games. Our deal is our body of work between Oct. 12 and April 1. We want to continue to get better.”