Illinois suffers first loss of season at hands of Missouri
ST. LOUIS — They lived up to their Fighting Illini nickname. They just weren’t the shooting Illini.
No. 12 Missouri knocked No. 10 Illinois from the ranks of the undefeated, punching out an 82-73 victory in taut fashion before a sold-out crowd of 22,139 on Saturday at the Scottrade Center.
“It’s really very simplistic,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said. “We didn’t execute. Their quality of shot was better than ours. Our effort was outstanding. But when you play really good teams, you have to have both, effort and execution.’’
Illinois (12-1) tried to answer Missouri’s surges. But in capturing the Braggin’ Rights trophy for the fourth consecutive year, the Tigers (10-1) had too many ways to play the game.
“In the second half, it was like a heavyweight boxing match,’’ Groce said. “I told the guys I was extremely proud of their effort for the toughness they displayed. It’s something to build on, for sure. My guys showed me something tonight. Our hearts and minds were in the right place. These guys wanted to step up and make plays.’’
Mizzou outrebounded Illinois 58-35. It also had the inside track on close-in baskets, allowing it to shoot 39.7 percent in this fiercely contested rivalry game.
The Illini shot only 33.8 percent (25-for-74), including just 25 percent (8-for-32) from three-point range. Both were season lows.
After trailing 48-39 early in the second half, Illinois dug in and opened a 62-57 lead with eight minutes left. But Missouri used its interior muscle and the leadership of point guard Phil Pressey to respond with a 13-2 run that put it in command 70-64 with 4:10 left.
The setback spoiled some good efforts. Continuing to make strides in the paint, sophomore center Nnanna Egwu had a career-high 12 points and nine rebounds.
“I love his potential,’’ Groce said. “He’s done a great job defensively. He just needs to play.’’
Illini senior Tyler Griffey provided clutch outside shooting (4-for-7 on threes). But the St. Louis product never did come out of a Braggin’ Rights meeting with a smile.
“I would have liked to go out with a win,’’ Griffey said. “Hats off to Missouri. But I’m happy with the way our guys played. We battled.’’
While Brandon Paul (23 points and eight rebounds) had a productive game, Missouri did an effective job of keeping the All-America candidate from taking over.
“Numbers don’t really mean anything to me. We didn’t win,’’ Paul said. “I was trying to make plays. I was kind of trying to do too much at times. Our execution was a little bit off. We usually take a lot of good shots. We took some questionable shots, including myself, which didn’t allow us to get into the offense we wanted to.’’
Despite missing his first 15 shots, Pressey (12 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds) nearly finished with a triple-double while playing 39 minutes.
“I just try to stay in attack mode,’’ Pressey said. “Even though I was missing shots, I felt it was an opportunity for our bigs to clean up those misses. My dad [ex-NBA player Paul] always told me, ‘If you can’t pass it, just throw it up there and your bigs will get a rebound.’ ’’
Missouri also got big games from those bigs, Laurence Bowers (23 points, 10 rebounds) and Alex Oriakhi (13 and 14).
“I thought our guys showed great toughness down the stretch,’’ said second-year coach Frank Haith, who has Missouri poised for a strong Southeastern Conference debut.