Groce: Missouri loss 'something to build on'

ST. LOUIS -- College basketball needs more games like Illinois vs. Missouri.

A non-conference classic, it's a rare battle between traditional power conference heavyweights, and Illinois coach John Groce experienced a series for the first time that's featured several made-for-TV moments.

Like the time Chief Illiniwek was tackled by the Mizzou student section. Or when the two teams battled to triple overtime in the 1990's in a basketball game/Christmas party that's often the toughest ticket in St. Louis year after year.

So after No. 10 Illinois saw its undefeated run ended with an 82-73 loss to No. 12 Missouri Saturday before a beer-stained crowd of 22,139 Saturday, Groce already knew a pep talk was in order, no matter if Illinois won its first 12 games to leap into the top 10.

"From our perspective from the first time going through it, it was exactly what everyone told me in terms of environment and electricity in the building,'' Groce said. "I want to give our guys credit. I told them in the locker room, I was really proud of them and their effort, for the toughness they displayed mentally in the second half.

"It was something to build on. We don't allow one game to define us. I know it's an important game, a rivalry game. I have great respect for that. We're going to play around 35-plus games. Our deal is our body of work between Oct. 12 and April 1. We want to continue to get better.''

Historically, Illinois' mood heading into Big Ten play nearly always centers on what happened during one non-conference game in The Lou, but Groce worked the room after the Illini lost for the fourth straight time in the series. The Illini (12-1) host Auburn at the United Center in Chicago on Dec. 29 (1:15 p.m., BTN).

Realistically, this season remained a work in progress for the Illini, who fell victim to the chief concerns heading into the season.

While the Illini struggled inside, they also couldn't contain an elite level point guard. Missouri guard Phil Pressey was 3 of 19 from the field but finished with 12 points and 11 assists. He dominated the game even though he couldn't find the basket himself.

Pressey's playmaking left the Illini scrambling on defense and out of position when balls bounced off the rim. He created better shots for Missouri than Illinois attempted down the stretch.

"Offensively, he was dymanic in terms of getting to the lane,'' Groce said.

Meanwhile, the Illini weren't able to create quality opportunities for themselves down the stretch with the game on the line.

"Their execution was better than ours down the stretch,'' Groce said. "Their quality of shot was better than ours down the stretch.''

The Illini led 62-57 on two free throws by guard Joe Bertrand, capping a run of eight straight points for the Illini. But Missouri took control with a 13-2 run for a 70-64 lead with 4 minutes 11 seconds left.

Illinois doesn't have a player like Pressey.

Illini guard Brandon Paul had 23 points with eight rebounds, five assists, three turnovers, two blocks and one steal, but his scoring came on 5 of 18 shooting.

Down the stretch, Pressey smothered Paul. With Illinois needing to get a stop, Paul couldn't contain Pressey, who penetrated and dished to Laurence Bowers for a dunk and a 75-70 lead with 59 seconds left.

"Brandon does a great job with his dribble moves, trying to get separation,'' Missouri coach Frank Haith said. "Phil's quickness bothered him. When it was late in the game, we wanted Phil to guard him.

"When Phil wants to defend, he can stay in front of people. He was outstanding down the stretch.''

Bertrand had 13 points, but guard D.J. Richardson added seven points on 1 of 9 shooting from the 3-point line. Sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams finished with four points and one assist.

While the Illini returned four starters from last season, they lost center Meyers Leonard to the NBA. The biggest question mark could be found in the paint.

Missouri's size overwhelmed the Illini. The Tigers entered as the nation's leading rebounder at 46.1 per game and fourth nationally in rebound margin at plus 13.3. It was no contest. The Tigers grabbed a 58-35 edge on the boards. Missouri had more offensive rebounds (22) than Illinois had defensive rebounds (21).

Missouri (10-1) built a 44-24 advantage at points in the paint.

"I didn't think it would be 58-35,'' said Groce. "They're just really good at it. They're big and deep.''

Senior forward Tyler Griffey scored 14 points but pulled down only two rebounds. Sophomore center Nnanna Egwu played his best game as an Illini, contributing 12 points and nine rebounds.

Bowers had 23 points and 10 rebounds for Mizzou. Forward Alex Oriakhi, a Connecticut transfer, had 13 points and 14 rebounds. On the perimeter, Oregon transfer Jabari Brown scored 18 points.

Thus, the Illini must regroup after a surprisingly hot start was doused in the non-conference season's most anticipated game, and the Illini seniors went 0-for-4 vs. the Tigers.

"I would have liked to go out with one (win),'' Griffey said. "Hats off to Mizzou. They executed better than us.''

Missouri's roster sometimes has as much turnover as a Kansas juco, and Bowers was left standing at mid-court with only the Braggin' Rights trophy when his teammates ran off the court for the locker room without the hardware.

"It's a personal thing,'' Bowers said. "We got the win, so I'm going to have a Merry Christmas.''

On the other side the court, Illinois headed home for the holiday needing to bounce back from a loss to Missouri.

John Supinie is a contributor to IlliniPlaybook. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.

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