ST. LOUIS — Part of what lured Jordan Clarkson from Tulsa to Missouri was the opportunity to play in marquee games. For Missouri, there is no nonconference stage brighter than the annual Braggin’ Rights Game against Illinois.
In this year’s installment of that game Saturday evening at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Clarkson’s first chance to cement his place in Braggin’ Rights lore slipped away.
With Missouri trailing 65-64 with 4.6 seconds left, Tony Criswell’s inbound pass was behind Clarkson, who had the ball slip off his hand back to Criswell, whose last-second desperation heave from beyond the three-point line sailed wide, clinching the 65-64 victory for Illinois.
“It was just a tough pass to catch,” Clarkson said. “I was coming down full speed, just kind of the ball just kind of went behind me a little bit and slipped out of my hand.”
“Tony made not a really good pass there,” coach Frank Haith said.
With Criswell’s errant pass went both Missouri’s undefeated record this season and its chance to win five consecutive Braggin’ Rights games for the first time.
The mishap on the inbounds pass was just the final and most debilitating of what was a series of missed opportunities to seize the ball at critical junctures for Missouri on Saturday.
The Fighting Illini came away with the ball during three late-game loose-ball situations, a fact that wasn’t lost on Haith after the game.
“Give Illinois credit. I think they were more physical than us, in terms of loose balls they came up with, second shots,” Haith said. “That was the difference in the game."
Following a Jabari Brown three-pointer that put Missouri ahead 64-63 with 14.9 seconds remaining, what started with Rayvonte Rice losing control of the ball in the corner for Illinois ended with Tracy Abrams driving the lane, drawing a foul.
“It threw the play off a little bit, but I felt like, you know, you try to stay in front of him and they call a foul and you can’t do nothing about that,” Brown said.
Two successful free throws later, the Fighting Illini were ahead for good.
“We just had to make a play; we had to make a stop at the end of the game. We just didn’t finish the game how we wanted to,” Clarkson said. “A couple loose balls, missed free throws. It all comes down when the buzzer rings so you just got to finish games.”
“We have to do the little things, you know,” Brown said. “We missed free throws; we had some turnovers.
"We didn’t lose the game on that one play; it’s an accumulation of things.”
The game’s first eight minutes didn’t contribute to the Tigers’ demise.
Thanks to turnovers by Illinois, Missouri started the game on an 8-0 run and led 15-6 with Rice, the Fighting Illini’s leading scorer entering the game, on the bench with two fouls, but the Tigers couldn’t take advantage. The sloppy play that plagued the Fighting Illini early switched over to the Tigers, catapulting Illinois to a 10-0 run and its first lead of the game.
Missouri struggled the rest of the half, returning to the locker room with 11 field goals and 10 turnovers. The Tigers trailed 31-27 at the break.
Abrams carried the Fighting Illini in the second half, scoring 14 of his 22 points during the game’s final 20 minutes.
“What stands out to me is his disposition in huddles,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “He was so locked in, very vocal. He wanted to talk in a couple of huddles, tapped me and wanted to say something. He did that a lot tonight.”
Abrams’ 22 points led the Fighting Illini, whose only other double-digit scorer was Rice with 14 points. Clarkson finished with a game-high 25 points along with six rebounds and a career-high eight assists. Brown (10 points) and Earnest Ross (13 points) were Missouri’s other double-digit scorers. The trio combined for 75 percent of the Tigers’ points.
Missouri was already in the bonus by the time the Tigers were whistled for their first foul of the second half, but the foul count evened out, with the majority of the calls in the game’s final minutes favoring the Fighting Illini.
That didn’t bother Haith. How his team adjusted to the calls did.
“It was a hard-fought game. It was like two heavyweight fighters going at it,” Haith said. “I think you got to adjust to the game when it’s going to be officiated like that, in terms of the physicality of the game, and they did a better job of that than we did.”