Illinois 68, Mizzou 63
ST. LOUIS – The last three Braggin' Rights games haven't been good for the hearts on either side of the Border War. But for the third straight year, Illinois fans enter Christmas with a win, and a little less stress.
As always with these Illini though, it didn't come easy.
Just like Saturday's win over South Dakota, Illinois dominated the first half (41-27 at half) and took a 20-point lead early in the second half – only to erode it away quickly. Mizzou went on a 15-0 run to close the deficit to five as Illinois went on a 9:29 scoreless drought from 16:19 to 6:50 in the second half that included 12 straight missed shots.
But Illinois (8-5) survived the sluggish second half thanks in large part to two of the few familiar faces in the rivalry game.
Kendrick Nunn scored 19 points, pulled down a career-high 11 rebounds – his first career double-double – and tied his career high with four steals, while Malcolm Hill scored a game-high 21 points to lead Illinois to its third straight win at the Scottrade Center and its fifth straight win heading into Big Ten play.
A freshman played well for the Illini in his first Border War, as well. Michael Finke – starting his fifth straight game – scored 16 points, his seventh double-figure scoring output of the season and his fifth in six games.
Illinois shot 51.5 percent in the first half (17 for 33) but shot just 25 percent in the second half (6-for-24, including 3-for-13 from three). The Illini scored 12 of their 27 second-half points from the free-throw line (and missed six free-throw attempts).
Missouri junior Wes Clark led the Tigers with 21 points, while freshman Kevin Puryear added 12.
The Braggin' Rights series is a game of streaks – Illinois won nine in a row from 2000-08 followed by four straight Mizzou wins – and the Illini (8-5) own the current run over Mizzou (5-6). Wednesday's win gives Illinois a five-game winning streak entering Big Ten play.
The announced attendance was 14,456 but the crowd looked smaller than that.
What it means
Illinois still doesn't know how to bury inferior teams. The Illini are stringing together longer good stretches of games but seemingly take the foot off the gas pedal, allowing teams back in games. That's not a winning recipe during Big Ten play. Still, following a disheartening 3-5 start to the season, the Illini took care of business during its easier part of the nonconference schedule and found a way to win some close games. It will take a heck of an improvement for this team to make an NCAA Tournament run, but at least there is slim hope.
What went right
The Illini defense had active hands for most of the game, forcing nine first-half Missouri turnovers (five Illini first-half steals). While the Illini were beat on the boards, they also defended relatively well – for them – in the paint. The Illini didn't let their offense, especially during the second half drought, affect their defense -- which helped win the game.
The Illini turned that defense into good offense and took advantage of a suspect Mizzou defense that over-helped too often, giving the Illini open shots.
The Illini junior stars, Hill and Nunn, played like stars when they needed them most.
The Illini continue to take care of the ball at an elite level, turning it over just seven times. Meanwhile, Missouri had 15 turnovers -- and Illinois had 15 points off those turnovers. A big deciding factor in the game.
What went wrong
The Illini had two prolonged scoring droughts, a 5:23 scoreless stretch early in the first half and an excruciating 9:29 stretch in the middle of the second half. During the latter drought, Illinois missed 12 straight shots and puckered a bit, forcing up long or contested shots.
The Illini struggled mightily when Finke left the court. Finke forces defenses to collapse on him, something Mav Morgan doesn't give.
Freshman Aaronn Jordan went scoreless for just the second time this season and played just seven minutes, his second lowest total of the season.
Freshman D.J. Williams struggled in his miniscule minutes, especially in the second half. The lanky forward didn't contest a Wes Clark shot, turned it over on a bad pass to Morgan and forced a shot in traffic instead of kicking out to a wide-open shooter.
Star of the game
Kendrick Nunn: The Illini junior picked a great time for his first career double-double. He is the epitome of what Groce wants his program to be: energetic, tough, unfazed and smart. He was efficient from the floor (6-for-12), made clutch free throws, impacted the glass (career-high 11 rebounds) and on defense (career-high four steals).
The Illini have another week off to rest, recover and improve. They better take advantage of it because conference play is finished and the brutality of the Big Ten schedule begins. The Illini host Michigan (10-3) for a matinee 2 p.m. tipoff on Wednesday, Dec. 30 at the State Farm Center.