Illinois denies Missouri fifth-straight Braggin' Rights title in dramatic fashion

Illinois denies Missouri fifth-straight Braggin’ Rights title in dramatic fashion

ST. LOUIS — All signs pointed to another Braggin’ Rights victory for No. 23 Missouri. Jabari Brown had just knocked down a dramatic 3-pointer to give the Tigers a 64-63 lead with 15 seconds left and Illini guard Rayvonte Rice found himself trapped in the far corner with a swarm of defenders bearing down.

“We thought we were going to get the stop,” Missouri guard Jordan Clarkson said. “We saw him lose the ball in the corner. I thought that was the play we were going to get.”

(Photo: USA Today)

Illinois snapped a 4-game losing streak against Missouri with its 65-64 triumph Saturday night. (Photo: USA Today)

Everything was set up for a Mizzou win, but then the unexpected happened.

As he fell out of bounds, Rice hurled an over-the-head pass to Nnanna Egwu. Egwu caught the ball and dished it to guard Tracy Abrams who  spun into the lane and drew the foul as he went up for the shot with 4.7 seconds left. Two free throws and a botched inbounds pass later, and MU’s hopes of extending its win streak over the Fighting Illini to a record five games evaporated, as did its aspirations of improving to 11-0 for the second time in the last three seasons.

“It was a hard fought game,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “I thought it was extremely, extremely physical game, particularly there in the second half. Give Illinois a lot of credit, I think they were more physical than us in terms of loose balls they came up with and second shots. That was the difference in the game.”

“We just got to do the little things,” Brown lamented. “We missed free throws, we had some turnovers. We don’t win or lose the game on that last play. It was an accumulation of things.”

In some ways, it was appropriate that Abrams was responsible for orchestrating Mizzou’s demise. While Rice, Illinois’ top scorer, had drawn most of the publicity entering the game, Abrams fueled a crucial 13-3 run that completely erased Mizzou’s 7-point lead with under three minutes remaining.

(Photo: USA Today)

Jordan Clarkson simply took over in the second half for Missouri. He finished with 25 points, 8 assists, 6 boards and a steal. (Photo: USA Today)

“He was really good,” Haith said. “He made some really big shots and made some really good plays for them.”

Abrams led the Illini with 22 points, while Rice contributed 14.

Clarkson did not disappoint in his first Braggin’ Rights game, registering a game-high 25 points on 8 of 13 shooting with eight assists, six boards and a steal. He was joined in double figures by Earnest Ross (13) and Brown (10), both of whom also chipped in multiple assists and a pair of steals.

“[Clarkson] is a dynamite player. He’s terrific,” Haith said. “I think he had a great balance today, obviously, when you look at what he did. I thought he shared the ball and played within himself.”

Mizzou stormed back from a five-point deficit midway through the second half, using a conventional 3-point play from Ross and a pair of free throws from Clarkson to knot the score at 44 with 12:39 remaining.

Nnanna Egwu, whose 3-pointer moments earlier had given Illinois its largest advantage of the half, delivered again with a free throw to break the stalemate, but Mizzou responded with a 9-1 run—sparked by a triple from Brown and highlighted by an emphatic dunk from Johnathan Williams III just moments later—to seize a 53-46 lead with 9:04 left.

Not to be outdone, Illinois rallied, out-scoring the Tigers 13-3 over the next six minutes to regain the lead at 59-56 with 2:56 remaining.

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Johnathan Williams III put an early exclamation point on Mizzou’s 9-1 run in the second half with a two-handed slam. (Photo: USA Today)

The series of runs throughout the first 38 minutes may have characterized Saturday’s game, but the final 120 seconds defined what makes this rivalry so special—two heavyweights frantically exchanging blows with those in attendance living and dying with each shot.

“The emotion of that environment can get you to maybe do some things or make a play that’s not there, that’s the one thing I’ve come to understand,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “A lot of times it comes down to toughness and players making plays.”

It started with Williams deflecting Rice’s jumper into the hands of Brown, who calmly organized his troops, working the ball over to Clarkson, who drove the lane and kicked it out to Ross who nailed a wide open 3-pointer to give Mizzou a two-point advantage.

Illinois had a similar opportunity on its next possession, with Abrams left alone on the wing, but rather than throw up the shot immediately, he feigned a pump fake, which afforded Clarkson just enough time to scramble over and contest his shot attempt, which ricocheted off the rim and into the hands of Ross.

After a Clarkson turnover and an Illinois timeout, Rice carried the ball to the top of the key and started to drive towards the basket. As he did, Brown reached in and batted the ball away. However, Rice managed to bat the loose ball over to Bertrand who kicked to to Jon Ekey for an open 3-pointer that gave the Illini a 62-60 lead with under a minute remaining.

“There’s a couple plays—and they’re going to be sick when they see them—we were running out instead of staying in there,” Haith said. “We’ve got to secure the ball.”

Following an ill-advised, out of control layup attempt from Ross, MU was forced to foul and U of I pushed its lead to two with a free throw from Rice (he missed the first and hit the second).

Both teams then called timeout, with Mizzou’s coming after freshman Wes Clark carried the ball into the frontcourt. During the 30-second timeout, Haith drew up the play that ultimately led to Brown’s dramatic 3-pointer from directly in front of his team’s bench.

“Coach set it up so that they were going to have to choose either to stop me at the basket or guard Jabari,” Clarkson explained.

(Photo: USA Today)

Tracy Abrams played the role of hero for Illinois Saturday night, knocking down the game-winning free throws with 4.7 seconds left. (Photo: USA Today)

Haith called his final timeout after that play to get his defense set up, but nothing after that triple from Brown seemed to go according to play for Missouri with Abrams hitting his two free throw attempts and Criswell’s errant inbound pass preventing Clarkson from getting a decent look with his final shot attempt.

“It was a tough pass to catch,” Clarkson explained. “I was coming down full speed and the ball went behind me a little bit and slipped out of my hand. Tony just got it and I feel like we got a good shot at the basket. That was the only shot we could get.”

“Tony didn’t make a really good pass,” Haith said. “I thought if we’d have gotten that play off clean, he would have had a chance to make a play.”

The Tigers finished the game shooting 45 percent from the field and 47 percent from behind the arc, but they hit just 12 of 18 free throws and committed 14 turnovers. Illinois shot 40 percent from the field and hit 8 of its 22 3-point attempts. The final rebounding margin favored Mizzou 33-32 (second chance points were 13-4 MU).

There were a total of 15 lead changes and six ties over the 40 minute period.

“It’s emotionally draining,” Clarkson said. “That’s a tough way to lose, but we have to have short-term memory.”

Missouri opened the game on an 8-0 run that featured five points from Clarkson who sparked the run with an open 3-pointer from the top of the arc then capped it off with a layup that forced an Illinois timeout less than three minutes into the game. It was an impressive start on both ends of the floor for the Tigers, who were largely successful in their attempts to deny the Illini touches in the paint early on.

Rice hit a 3-pointer to pull U of I within six at the 15:26 mark, but Ross responded for MU with a steal and score, followed by a made free throw to give the Tigers their largest lead at nine with 13:46 remaining.

The two sides exchanged a string of empty possessions before Bertrand stole the ball from Clark and knocked down an open jumper to spark a 23-10 Illini run that featured five 3-pointers, including consecutive triples from Egwu and Ekey that gave Illinois its first lead of the evening at 27-23. The margin was pushed out to six after Abrams hit a layup with 27 seconds left, but Clarkson responded for Missouri, hitting a layup with five seconds left to push the score to 31-27 at the break.

As a team, the Tigers hit 11 of 25 shots from the field and 4 of 9 from behind the arc in the first half, but committed 10 turnovers which led to 16 points for the other side. Clarkson led the way with nine points on 4 of 7 shooting. He also added a steal and a team-high four assists over the first 20 minutes.

Illinois, meanwhile, finished the half shooting just 38 percent from the field, but knocked down 6 of 13 3-point attempts.

“I thought we looked a little tentative,” Groce explained. “They came out like gangbusters.”

Missouri will have a week to sit on this loss before it heads out to Raleigh, North Carolina to take on North Carolina State. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.

In addition to covering Tigers basketball on Hank’s Sports Blog, Brian Haenchen is also a hockey and college hoops (SLU and Missouri) columnist for InsideSTL. Follow him on Twitter (@Brian_Haenchen).

Check out my column on Jordan Clarkson’s Braggin’ Rights debut (complete with #analysis) on InsideSTL.com. (Photo: STLToday.com)