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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.