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Missouri men's basketball team gets tough down the stretch

Saturday, December 22, 2012 | 7:33 p.m. CST; updated 9:49 p.m. CST, Saturday, December 22, 2012
Missouri defeated Illinois 82-73 at the Braggin' Rights game Saturday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

ST. LOUIS — 11:37 left. Timeout, Missouri.

He stood, hands on his hips, suit jacket long gone. He paced around his team, around the court, wherever he could. He touched his glasses, and scratched his head.

Illinois had just gone on a 12-2 run. Missouri was now losing 51-50. Coach Frank Haith was trying to compose himself in front of his team during the timeout.

Sloppy passes. Poor rebounding. Missed layups. Turnovers.

Half the crowd was screaming, the orange-and-blue side, chanting, cheering, smiling. The Missouri waltz began to play, the band booming, the fans singing. It was black and gold’s attempt to combat the noise.

It failed.

Two minutes later.

He was squatting, one hand balanced on the court, the other covering his mouth, Missouri down 56-54. And then he sprung.

Phil Pressey drove the lane, and made a perfect pass to Alex Oriakhi, who dunked the ball while being fouled. He made the free throw, and finished the game with 13 points and 14 rebounds.

Haith pumped his fist.

Missouri was winning by one.

8:08 remaining.

Haith’s hands. First they’re in his pockets, then out. Then one in, one out.

Illinois' Joseph Bertrand was on a tear. The guard had made the last six points for Illinois, and pushed the lead to five, 62-57 Illinois.

Pressey was struggling, yet to make a field goal in the game. Rebounds were not falling the Tigers’ way, and the crowd was as loud as ever.

6:22, huddling.

Haith couldn’t get in. He moved around the outside of the circle, his players all huddled together, patting Earnest Ross’ back, the forward who had just gotten an offensive rebound and a layup.

Missouri led 65-64.

Haith tapped a shoulder, and an opening appeared.

“I think this may have been the most we’ve ever like, came together during dead balls,” Laurence Bowers said, who had 23 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. “And we really benefited from it, because everybody was on the same page. We came up with a game plan to cut off whatever they were beating us with. We came together.”

4:10 left.

Haith emphatically pumped his fists.

Pressey just made his first basket of the game, a floater that circled around the rim before going in. Before that, Jabari Brown scored on a fast break layup, the score now 70-64 Missouri.

It was only Brown’s second game of the year, and he started, finishing the game with 18 points and seven rebounds.

The black-and-gold half was loud, the loudest so far, the orange-and-blue side not even attempting to counteract.

In the timeout, Haith almost smiled. Almost.

2:13 remaining.

Haith crouched, still frozen.

Illinois forward Tyler Griffey had just made back-to-back threes, cutting Missouri’s lead, 72-70. Haith snapped out of his gaze, stood, and re-tucked his shirt.

He paced again, hands in, hands out.

Less than a minute.

Brown made both.

The crowd knew it, some players knew it, and Haith kind of knew it, too. The two free throws pushed the lead to 79-70, Missouri.

Tiger fans were screaming. Fighting Illini fans were moping.

Pressey ran toward the Missouri crowd, and raised his hands.

82-73

The final buzzer sounded, and Haith gave one last fist pump. He shook hands with his opposition.

The players ran in to the tunnel, forgetting about the ceremony. The trophy, five-feet-tall with a golden ball mounted on the top, was being brought out.

Haith was lost in the excitement, somewhere. Bowers was the only one at mid-court to accept the award for winning the Braggin’ Rights game 82-73, cameras flashing in his face.

“I thought Phil would have known (about the trophy), but Phil took off,” Bowers said, laughing. “I don’t know where Coach went, Coach took off.”

They all met back on to the court and celebrated.

“Our guys really gritted,” Haith said. “In order to win games like this, toughness is such a key word. And I thought our guys exuded that. They played with great toughness to finish the game off.

“To win games at this level, a game like this, you have to be able to make free throws, don’t turn the ball over, execute in a tight ballgame,” Haith said. “We made plays when we were down. We didn’t rush things. As a matter of fact, when we got down, we executed better than we were when we were up. A game like this with two high-level teams, the runs are going to happen. It’s just how you handle yourself. You don’t let it just spiral, and I thought our guys did a great job with that.”

And Haith, a composed and proud head coach, hoisted the trophy high above his head. Smiling.

Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.

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