ST. LOUIS — With seven minutes left in Thursday's game, the Missouri men's basketball team found itself in a position it hadn't been in all season.
The Tigers led Illinois by just one point, and it was clear that they were going to have to fight to get a win in the annual Braggin' Rights game at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
By the seven minute mark in Missouri's first 11 games this season, the Tigers led by double digits and could coast to a victory. Thursday was the first time Missouri coach Frank Haith saw his team truly tested during this first season at the helm.
The lead changed eight times in the final seven minutes, and the teams were tied twice in the final four minutes. In the end, Missouri ended up winning 78-74.
"I'm proud of how these guys fought," Haith said.
But for most of the game it didn't seem like they would have to fight. Missouri led by 14 points early in the second half, and led by 12 with just under 12 minutes to go.
Illinois was able to claw back into the game with scoring from sophomore guard Joseph Bertrand and 7-foot-1 sophomore center Meyers Leonard.
Facing adversity for the first time, the Tigers rushed on offense. Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon impatiently shot three-pointers and missed them. Pressey tried to drive into the lane and score unsuccessfully on multiple possessions. Each time, the orange side of the arena grew louder and louder, and the black-and-gold side became more and more quiet.
"We got caught up in the game a little bit," Haith said. "We lost some focus on both ends of the court. Particularly on the offensive end, I thought we took some quick shots, settled for some threes."
They got their focus back just in time.
"To win games like this, it comes down to the halfcourt," Haith said. "We're a full court team, but you've got to be able to get stops, and you've got to be able to execute on offense."
Down 67-66, Pressey drove quickly down the right side of the lane. Rather than forcing a shot, he made a pass. A few feet from the basket, he flipped the ball behind his back to senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe, who made a layup.
A minute later, trailing 70-68, the Tigers scored seven straight points to make the black-and-gold side of the arena, happiest and loudest.
"At the end, when we needed to make play, we did a nice job making plays," Haith said.
Ratliffe scored six points in the final four minutes and finished with 14. Pressey and Dixon both finished with 18.
"There's gonna be a lot more games like this towards the end of our season," Pressey said.
A couple of those games are just around the corner. Missouri plays at Old Dominion on Dec. 30 and starts Big 12 play against Oklahoma on Jan. 3.
The Tigers will enjoy Christmas. They sit at 12-0 for the first time since the 1981-82 season. But then, Haith said, they'll get right back to work.
"There's no time to relax," Haith said.