ST. LOUIS -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber has seen his team play some fantastic basketball in the first two months of the season. The Illini have steamrolled some very good teams, including a blowout win against then-No. 1 Wake Forest.
It's been nothing but fun in Champaign this season. Until Wednesday, at least.
"It was such a hard-fought game," Weber said. "Every game has been so pleasant. This wasn't pleasant."
No, Missouri didn't play well enough to knock off the top-ranked Illini, but the Tigers put a scare into Illinois in their 70-64 loss Wednesday night at Savvis Center in St. Louis.
For 35 minutes, Missouri seemed to be playing out the script it used to topple Indiana on Sunday. The Tigers struggled mightily from the field in the first half, allowing Illinois to grab a 38-23 halftime lead. Missouri slowly chipped away at the lead through the second half, cutting it to as few as six several times and four in the final seconds. But Illinois was too quick, too talented and too good to let Missouri come all the way back.
"They're definitely the No 1 team in the country for a reason," sophomore forward Linas Kleiza said.
Kleiza showed why he is one of the most versatile players in the country Wednesday, scoring 25 points on 11 shots. He converted six of them and nailed 11-of-13 from the free-throw line and also chipped in seven rebounds and three assists.
But it didn't result in a win. Missouri's early deficit was too much to overcome.
"That's what we do every game," Kleiza said. "It's getting old, you know? We've got to stay close and find a way to play better in the first half."
Few expected the Tigers stood a chance against the Illini. Missouri coach Quin Snyder said it would be "over" if Missouri had another poor first half on Wednesday night.
They did, and the game wasn't even close to over.
"I was very proud of how our team handled this challenge," Snyder said. "It demonstrates for our guys the divide between where we are and where we want to be. It's an opportunity for us to continue to build on that."
It would have been a lot easier to build on a win, which wasn't that far away. The Tigers missed seven shots from within five feet in the second half alone; converting four of those would have handed Missouri the biggest upset in the history of the storied history between these schools.
"There were a number of plays like that, that we were right on the cusp of making it a one-possession game," Snyder said. "We had a couple put-backs that were right there, we had a couple free throws, a missed jump shot…"
When those breaks don't come along, winning teams find other ways to capitalize. Missouri has yet to reach that mark, but Snyder sees positive signs coming out of this loss.
"If something doesn't happen that you want desperately to happen, you have to respond by digging in deeper," he said. "I thought we showed real poise. I saw the makings of some maturity, to be in that situation and continue to play the right way."
That could mean freeing up Kleiza as the focus of the Tiger offense. The only Tiger to reach double figures, Kleiza said he sees progress in his team, which has gone from getting blown out by Creighton to fighting tooth and nail with the best team in the country over the course of the past month.
"We're taking big steps in the right direction," Kleiza said. "This definitely gave us confidence. Nothing's ruined yet. We still got a long way to go."
Taking it to heart: Kleiza made one of the most interesting comments of the postgame session, suggesting he has fared well recently because he has taken the advice of the coaching staff to heart. Why he waited so long to do that is one question, but the dividends are definitely showing now.
"I really started buying into coach Q and what he has been saying," Kleiza said. "I started taking the coaching to a whole different level. That helped my game."
Kleiza was the focus of the Tiger offense all night, scoring Missouri's first eight points. Kleiza again did most of his damage by driving to the basket, drawing contact and getting to the free-throw line.
Kleiza said he sees growth in the team, both offensively and as a group.
"I'm saying that after every game: we're young, we're growing as a team," he said. "I think our commitment got even better: commitment to defense, commitment to each other and commitment to taking the coaching. I think we're coming."
Mixed results: Freshman point guard Jason Horton was serviceable against two of the best point guards in the country, Illinois' Dee Brown and Deron Williams. Horton struggled to slow them down defensively, leading to McKinney taking over that duty much of the second half.
After driving into traffic and forcing up difficult shots a few times in the first half, Horton was given an opportunity to convert from the outside in the second half. He took advantage; Horton finished 3-of-7 from the field, for eight points. He added four assists, two steals and two turnovers.
Snyder said Horton, after missing the entire summer because of surgery to remove blood clots in his right arm, is beginning to get a handle on the demands of running the offense of a college basketball team.
"I'm pleased that Jason is improving," Snyder said. "I think it really has an impact on all of us. He's getting the ball to guys in places where they can be effective."
Horton's progress also allows McKinney to play off the ball, where he feels much more comfortable. Missouri had a lot of success with McKinney running the offense in the second half against Indiana, but Snyder seems to think Horton is best suited to play the position.
"I think (McKinney) is going to get more and more comfortable playing with Jason and be even more aggressive on the offensive end," Snyder said. "Jason's investing more; it's pretty simple. He's learning. We've got a lot of guys that are growing individually."
You can go home again: McKinney had a strong game in his third matchup against Illinois in his native city. The former Vashon standout scored eight points on 3-of-6 shooting, and added five rebounds, two assists and three turnovers.
"It was great for me," McKinney said. "I think it would have been better if we came out with a victory."
In his first college game in his home city, freshman forward Kalen Grimes went scoreless on 0-of-1 shooting. The Hazelwood Central product chipped in one rebound and a foul in 13 minutes.
Four-shadowing: Illinois' visit to St. Louis on Wednesday could be a preview of another trip into the Gateway city: for the Final Four in early April. Many more performances like they had against the Tigers could make them questionable to play in St. Louis again this season.
Not that the players really want to talk about that sort of thing.
"We're not even thinking about that yet," Dee Brown said. "Y'all are just trying to force us to say something like that."
Mike's musings: The Tigers looked like a very good team in the second half, outscoring the Illini 41-32 and, according to Deron Williams, outplaying Illinois in the second half. Missouri got important contributions from several players in the final minutes; besides Kleiza, McKinney, Horton and sophomore guard Thomas Gardner all converted late. If Illinois had missed a few of its free throws down the stretch, the outcome might have been different. … The Tigers need a consistent second option to complement Kleiza. Senior guard Jason Conley continues to be deathly silent, while Gardner is faring well defensively but is slowing down on the other end of the court.
Sophomore point guard Spencer Laurie played briefly in the first half, missing a 3-pointer in two minutes of action. He looked to be moving around the court well enough, but his high ankle sprain must still be too painful to play many minutes on. Prediction Review: Missouri played much better than I expected them to play. Illinois had its worst shooting night of the season, while the Tigers were not that hot from the field either. With a week until they return to action against Gonzaga, the Tigers should be able to enjoy their Christmas dinner without too much disappointment.