UI 65, Missouri 64: 'I was very confident'
ST. LOUIS — When the buzzer sounded on Illinois’ 65-64 win against No. 23 Missouri in the annual Braggin’ Rights game, Rayvonte Rice pulled his blue No. 24 jersey over his head and let out a primal scream.
“I was just showing emotion,” the Illinois guard said.
“I would have pulled my shirt over my head, but my body doesn’t look like his,” Illinois coach John Groce deadpanned.
With the orange-clad half of the 21,987 at Scottrade Center standing and cheering, fifth-year senior Joseph Bertrand then led the Illini into the locker room with the Braggin’ Rights trophy hoisted over his head while Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas was handing out hugs to any player or staff within reach.
It was the first win for the Illini since 2008 in the storied rivalry, and the celebration was made possible because of the two free throws Illinois guard Tracy Abrams drained with 4.6 seconds remaining in a game the Tigers (10-1) led by a point. Jabari Brown’s (10 points, seven rebounds) three-pointer 10 seconds earlier lifted the Tigers into the lead.
Abrams’ situation was eerily similar to the position Kiwane Garris found himself in nearly 20 years ago to the day, when the then-freshman missed a pair of free throws with no time remaining in the second overtime of a tie game the Illini would lose in the third overtime.
From his perch next to the Illinois bench calling the game for the Illini Sports Network, Garris’ college roommate and teammate Jerry Hester had thoughts of that moment two decades earlier.
“I thought about that for a second,” Hester said. “I knew Tracy was going to knock them down. He was unbelievable in the second half. I had all the confidence in the world that history wasn’t going to repeat itself.”
The 6-foot-2 guard from Chicago carried the Illini in the second half, scoring 14 of his team-high 22 — as well as grabbing four of his six rebounds — in the final 20 minutes.
It’s those clutch free throws that will have Illinois fans remembering him for years to come.
“I was very confident. We shoot free throws every day in practice. It’s just repetition and having confidence in my shot,” he said. “I stepped to the line pretty confident, and I thought I was going to make them.”
Rice added 14 points and four rebounds for Illinois, which notched the 1,700th victory in program history.
“Tracy was a warrior tonight,” Rice said. “He made big plays for us, scored when we needed him to score, found the open man. He did everything you could ask him to do.”
The Illini (10-2) picked up the signature nonconference win they so desperately needed after letting an opportunity slip away one week ago in a loss to No. 15 Oregon in Portland. They did it despite Missouri’s Jordan Clarkson’s 25-point, eight-assist, six-rebound effort in a game the Tigers led 15-6 less than seven minutes in.
“That’s a heck of a win for us,” Groce said. “I thought Ray was really good during the stretch when it was 15-6, and a lot of teams could have panicked. Our guys stayed very poised. Ray made a couple of plays to get us back in striking distance. I thought that was a huge juncture in the game.”
There were mostly smiles coming from the Illinois side of things Saturday, but after the game Abrams and Groce both got somewhat emotional, tears welling up in their eyes at the thought of last year’s group of Illinois seniors — D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey, Kevin Berardini and Sam McLaurin — that never won a Braggin’ Rights game.
“To get a chance to win the game, you feel blessed to do that. I feel like we did it a little for those guys,” Groce said.
Said Abrams: “I definitely was thinking about those guys. Those guys were great teammates. They never had an opportunity to get one. For me to get one and for the team to get one, it’s great for those guys to represent the ‘I’ on our shirt for those guys.”