Tate: Illini are bragging again

Tate: Illini are bragging again

ST. LOUIS — Illini Nation was begging for a quality win Saturday, and their favorites obliged with a grand slam.

Some basketball teams do it with finesse, with deadeye shooting, with clever strategy.

In this pre-Christmas thriller, Illinois defeated Missouri — something last year’s seniors never did — with perseverance and toughness.

It was an alley-ball shootout that resulted in what fifth-year senior Jon Ekey called “the greatest game I’ve ever been a part of.”

With fans on both sides — 21,987 strong — near delirium at Scottrade Center, Frank Haith’s unbeaten Tigers rocked John Groce’s underdogs with one haymaker after another and, on the 15th lead change, irrepressible junior Tracy Abrams sank two perfect free throws at :04.6 to win it 65-64.

“That was an extremely physical game,” said Haith, “and Illinois was more physical than we were. They got the loose balls; they got the second shots. I think we let the intensity level (of the building) get to us. Abrams is a veteran. He took over.”

Missouri hadn’t experienced any last-second thrillers in its previous 10 games. Illinois, on the other hand, owned two-point wins against UNLV and IPFW before slumping late in the last four games, two of which were losses.

Not so Saturday.

As close as they get

For the record, the 65-64 score wasn’t the only close statistic: Each team nailed eight treys, free throws were 12-11, rebounds 33-32, turnovers 14-11. It was that tight.

And yet, when Mizzou forged ahead 53-46 at the three-quarter mark, you’d have sworn that Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson would be the difference. He was building an incredible stat line: 25 points, eight assists, six rebounds.

At the rate he is going, the 6-foot-5 Clarkson is a good bet to be the second straight Missouri point guard to leave early for the NBA (Phil Pressey is with the Celtics).

But Clarkson’s NBA-like skills were matched by a bulldog named Abrams. He drove when there was nowhere to drive. He dove across the court like a hockey goalie. He willed himself into the thick of it. He produced 22 points, and his 10 free throw attempts topped Clarkson by one ... the one that made it 65-64.

You see, it’s hard to play defense in today’s game. The zebras are obliged to favor the clever dribblers even if the dribbler forces the contact, and the college game is filled with “running backs” who can’t be stopped without fouling them.

That’s why veterans Earnest Ross and Jabari Brown were open for treys that put Mizzou up 61-59 and 64-63 ... threatened penetrations causing the Illini to clog the lane. But the Illini got just enough stops to hold Mizzou to a season low in points.


Battle tested

In the final analysis, Groce has patched together another gritty team that few expect to break .500 in the Big Ten. But whatever the result, they won’t back down.

Early on, in the heated atmosphere of Scottrade, they appeared inept. Missouri broke to an 8-0 lead. Minutes later, Rayvonte Rice picked up his second foul after recording the UI’s only two field goals ... and strangely enough that’s exactly when the Illini rallied.

Back-to-back treys by Kendrick Nunn and Abrams lit the fire as a 15-6 deficit became a 16-15 lead, and the Tigers realized they were in for a war.

“That was like two heavyweight fighters,” Haith said.

An exhausted Groce followed him to the dais with a similar comment:

“It had the feel of a heavyweight fight. We played with great toughness all night. Our defense was good late, and that’s a page we needed to turn.”

So Illinois captured its December “bowl game.” Next year, remember to bring the shoulder pads ... and three ref-judges with boxing backgrounds.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.


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patrick wrote on December 22, 2013 at 7:12 am

It's been a few years since I've seen an Illini team scrap like this bunch. there were many times when they could have folded, but they continued to play hard. Guys who weren't shooting especially well, played tough defense. I don't know good this team is, but, win or lose, when they play like this, I love watching them.

GW wrote on December 23, 2013 at 12:12 pm

I agree with Patrick, regardless of whether they win or lose they are fun to watch when they play like that. Congratulations on a great game....         GO ILLINI!!

IlliniMike05 wrote on December 23, 2013 at 1:12 pm

"The zebras are obliged to favor the clever dribblers even if the dribbler forces the contact"

Whichever "new" rule you're talking about, this is incorrect. The hand-checking emphasis- which isn't a new rule, and which has mostly been called excellently by officials this season- is a new emphasis on correctly calling the rule the way it's always been: you can't arm-bar, you can't constantly keep one hand on all the way, and you can't guide him with both hands. Those have always been in the rule books as fouls, and should be. It makes it tougher to defend? Good: it's supposed to be a free-flowing, offensive-minded sport.

And the rule changes on block/charge has just been glorious. The charge call is the worst rule in sports: you're rewarded just for getting to a spot? Getting to a spot shouldn't- and now, thankfully, basically doesn't- mean the play should end. That'd be like saying you should get two points on offense just for passing to the open man. You get to a spot? Great! Now challenge the shot. (Which, even before, was the more efficient play than attempting to draw a charge.)

Even so, this does not mean the officials are "obliged" to always favor the offensive player. An offensive player who's out of control and runs over a defender- which is different from the block/charge, in which an offensive player didn't have to be out of control in any way to be called for a charge- will still get called for an offensive foul, as we saw at least a couple times Saturday night.

The hand-wringing over the new rules and new emphasis on long-standing rules should really stop. They're enforcing a return to how the game should be played. The mugging of offensive players- both off-the-ball cutters and ballhandlers- was making the college game borderline unwatchable. We're already starting to see a difference in the quality of play as defenders learn they can't beat up ballhandlers; it's a higher-scoring, more wide-open game and will continue to go that direction.

DaisyJ wrote on December 25, 2013 at 1:12 pm


The charge should be part of the game and needs to be. For starters, the offensive foul is never called on a dunk, and clearly, it takes less skill to force, bull your way to the hole to slam it down. So what can a defensive player do when the force of a player is used to score. Basketball is positioning at its best, and if I am there before you are, I own that space. Called evening out someone that is out of control in the first place. Anyone can score on a defensive player if you allow them to bully their way to the basket, or push off to do a dunk. The dunk is over rated, show me a player that has touch, quick release, a fake, getting to the hole and I will show you skill. Show me a big overrated muscle man that can palm a ball, push off and stuff something through a ring and I will show you someone that never needs to practice.

IlliniMike05 wrote on December 28, 2013 at 4:12 pm

"The charge should be part of the game and needs to be."

Offensive fouls? Yes. Charges rewarding a guy just standing there when the offensive player is otherwise doing nothing wrong? No. Unquestionably no. It's the worst rule in sports. And like I said: it's not even the correct defensive play. It has been shown over and over again that attempting to challenge the shot is a far more efficient play than attempting to draw a charge.

"So what can a defensive player do when the force of a player is used to score."

Challenge the shot. Strip the ball. Not let the player get into the paint to begin with.

"Anyone can score on a defensive player if you allow them to bully their way to the basket, or push off to do a dunk."

Those are offensive fouls. They are not the charges I'm talking about. Like I said: out-of-control offensive players should still be called for offensive fouls. Plenty of "charges" are not out-of-control players. They're perfectly in-control players who just happen to have a pudwhack standing still in front of them.

"The dunk is over rated"


"show me a player that has touch, quick release, a fake, getting to the hole and I will show you skill."

Yep. Show me a player dunking and I'll show you someone taking the highest-percentage shot one can take, which is fundamental basketball at its purest: taking the best possible shot.

"Show me a big overrated muscle man that can palm a ball, push off and stuff something through a ring and I will show you someone that never needs to practice."

You seem to be confusing "overrated" with "physically gifted." Why should the sport punish those who have the best talent? Also, I just remembered you're the same moron who railed against the existence of the three-point shot, and that talking to you is a complete waste of my time.





DaisyJ wrote on December 28, 2013 at 6:12 pm

You have to reward the guy just standing there if he has earned that spot. What did the offensive player do to earn that spot second late after the defense is already there.

Being there first by the defensive play does make the offensive player change the shot, just by being there.

A defensive player many times does not have to do anything, if he beat the offensive to the spot.

Players forcing the dunk are rarely called for an offensive foul. The power dunk takes little skill for the tall player. Very little. That is why they do it.

If it thrills you to see someone so tall for them it is nothing for them to dunk, then that is your problem. The other shots I descibed take much more skill.

Physically gifted vs skill gifted is like what I just said. The three ball has made basketball a bad game. You need to watch basketball from the 50's to the 70's and you will see what I mean. Pete Maravich, Oscar Robinson, they worked on their game. They deserve the praise. \

Think about it, we have the last 10 yrs a decrease every year in scoring in NCAA basketball, even with a shot clock, even with the three. The middle game is gone, the three ball took it away. As did the dunk. Used to be that people made three point baskets by shooting it to the low post center, he made a finger roll spin move and got fouled.