You can look at the box scores, you can read the game summary. It ends up as a very important win for the Fighting Illini. The annual Braggin’ Rights border battle against Missouri in St. Louis rarely fails to live up to the hype. We watched as a family, with me trying to control myself and explain things to the kids. The wife worked on stuff on her laptop and sent several arch looks my way when I started talking to the refs and the TV. There was yelling and jumping at the end, when Ray nearly stole it and forced a bad three at the buzzer. Now the holidays can begin as they should: with Mizzou defeated and that border trophy on its way back to Champaign.
Yes, this was an important win for Illinois. That signature non-conference victory that could be very big come March. Beating a ranked team, and pulling it out at the end with a strong finish. A confidence-builder, a toughness win.
The toughness factor is what we’ll hang our hat on. Tracy Abrams led the way there, driving, drawing fouls, and finishing. And those two made free throws with four seconds left… Ray Rice made plays to keep us in the game even if this wasn’t his best offensive night. Jon Ekey with the clutch three. Bertrand and Egwu and the freshmen chipping in at key points. Statistically it was very even, but the Illini seemed to get all the loose balls and tough rebounds the last eight minutes or so. That will win you close games.
We still have a strong dislike for how this game was called – too much inconsistency; and I absolutely hate that a guy can stand still with hands straight up and get a foul (happened to Egwu twice). But give Coach Groce a ton of credit: he mixed in the zone when needed, called some nice set plays when Mizzou threatened to burst ahead, and we always like that orange blazer.
Have a theory that this game meant more to the Illinois players because we have more kids from the state and fewer transfer mercenaries (Mizzou has something like five of them from all over the country). The Illini made plays at the end. They will draw from this when conference play gets difficult.