If there is such a thing as a moral victory, four points is by far the closest anyone has come to Missouri so far this season. Illinois caused plenty of consternation on the Tiger bench near the end. But Mizzou's experience and tremendous athleticism and marksmanship gave them the edge.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber praised both Missouri and his own players afterward.
"They're a very good team, probably one of the best teams we'll face all year. I was proud, they hung in there. Good effort. Obviously you're not happy."
It appeared the Tigers would enjoy another route as they took a 41-30 lead at the break and came back to extend it 58-45 early in the second half. At that point, keeping the game close might have appeared the best scenario for a seemingly outmatched Illini quintet.
After all, Frank Haith has something special on his hands. The blinding speed and overall skill of his team reminds of a mixture of the 1989 and 2005 Final Four Illinois teams. The Illini had no defense for the quickness of the Pressey brothers and Michael Dixon or the three point marksmanship of Marcus Denmon and Kim English.
However, the Illini began to chip away little by little. The big impetus came from redshirt sophomore Joe Bertrand off the bench. Playing like a man possessed, Bertrand finished with 19 points and five rebounds. He drove for layins and floaters, breaking down the Tiger defense from the top of the key. Weber was especially happy to see Bertrand shine after struggling with confidence issues the last couple years.
"Nine for nine is pretty good. They play small ball, and you had to match that. We gave Joe a chance. He has really struggled, everybody knows that. And our bench has struggled.
"We did something the other day. We played four on four half court before and after practice with all the young guys. Joe played well. To be honest, I don't think we were gonna put him in first. But he made some plays and gained a little confidence. That's why we gave him a shot, and he came up big.
"We needed something off the bench, and he gave us a huge lift. That was very positive for us."
Bertrand did what he does best, slashing to the hoop. Weber said it was effective because it wasn't forced.
"He was simple. He made straight-line drives, jumped up and shot it. I'm really happy for him."
Bertrand brought the Illini back to within one at 62-61, and then Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson took over the scoring load. Paul hit a floater and a high-arching three to give the Illini one point leads. Richardson was fouled on a three-point attempt and sank all three freebies to give Illinois a temporary 70-68 lead.
Unfortunately for the Illini, the Tigers then scored 7 straight points to close out the win. Even then the Illini had their chances, but turnovers and mental mistakes haunted their effort. Weber said a turning point was a loose ball Ricardo Ratliffe picked up and scored to make it 75-70 MU.
"The key play was the loose ball. We lose the MATTO by one. Get on the floor, you dive. Three guys should have been on the floor. Ratliffe picked it up and put it in."
Missouri had the ball under the UI basket with 44 seconds left, leading 75-72 after a Meyers Leonard tip. The Illini ended up letting Mizzou run down the shot clock before permitting Paul Pressey to drive all the way in for a layup to put the game out of reach.
"We said we were gonna press and see if we could get a steal. They're such good free throw shooters, if you foul they're not missing. We said to foul Ratliffe, but they took him out. They were smart. They put us in a bind there. They're one of the best shooting teams in the country and definitely one of the best free throw shooting teams."
Of course, the lack of defense on Pressey was not drawn up during the timeout. But his quickness was a problem for the Illini all night.
Paul had a good night statistically for the Illini. His double-double included 19 points and ten rebounds, and he also handed out 3 assists. However, his night wasn't perfect according to Weber.
"Brandon made big plays, but he turned it over a couple times very carelessly down the stretch."
Richardson had another good game, scoring 13 points. Leonard also had a double-double. He scored 14 points and grabbed 12 boards. However, the Illini needed him to be more of a force near the basket.
"We've got to get Meyers inside. I can only yell 'get inside' so many times. It's all right to start outside, but he's got to work his way in more often. You can't stay outside."
The Illini ended up outshooting the Tigers from the field, 48% to 45%, despite hitting only 4 of 18 threes. They also outrebounded them by six. But 17 turnovers, many of the careless variety, led to easy MU buckets. And there was a big discrepancy at the foul line, the Tigers hitting 19 of 23 attempts while the Illini were limited to 8 of 10.
Former Illini guard Kiwane Garris played in four Braggin' Rights games, all of which were highly memorable. He spoke to the Illini beforehand about playing with heart. The Illini did that. And Weber feels his players responded to the goals he placed before them.
"I talked about having courage, competing and having energy. We did those things, but now you've got to finish it and be a little smarter down the stretch."
They didn't win, but they are getting closer to understanding what it takes to defeat a quality opponent. If they can improve from here, perhaps an upset or two is in their future.
The Illini get precious little time to rest before the start of the Big 10 schedule December 27 when Minnesota invades the Assembly Hall.