ST. LOUIS — It’s not too often the nation’s best team has an off night.
When No. 1 Illinois did, Missouri was in position to take advantage but failed to convert on several late opportunities, and the Fighting Illini held on to beat Missouri 70-64 in front of 22,153 fans in the Braggin’ Rights game Wednesday at Savvis Center.
“Every game has been so pleasant, and this wasn’t pleasant,” Illinois coach Bruce Webber said. “You got to learn to win a lot of different ways. You’ve got to win ugly, grind games out. Everything is not going to go (right all the time).”
It was Illinois’ first non-double digit win of the season, but it was the Illini’s 15th win in the Braggin’ Rights series. The Illini (11-0) have won the past five meetings.
Missouri (6-5) has a 4-15 record against No. 1 teams since the polls began in 1954.
Missouri’s best opportunity to inch closer to the Illini came with 33.5 seconds left after Illinois guard Dee Brown turned the ball over trying to break the Tigers’ full-court press. Jason Conley took the ensuing inbounds pass with Missouri trailing 67-61 and was called for a charge, allowing Illinois to seal the game from the free-throw line.
“There were a number of plays like where we were right on the cusp of making it a one-possession game and put even more game pressure of them,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said.
Another chance came when Missouri’s Jimmy McKinney went to the free-throw line looking to complete a 3-point play with 1:22 left and the Tigers trailing 61-56.
McKinney missed the free throw, but teammate Kevin Young got the offensive rebound. Young, however, missed the layup, and the Tigers were forced to foul Illinois’ Roger Powell Jr, who connected on both free-throw attempts.
“To their credit they battled. Everyone kept saying, ‘Oh, it’s not going to be a game,’” Webber said. “It’s too big a game and add the extra incentive of us being No. 1 and they raised their level, they battled, they fought.”
It was the second straight year Missouri tried to come from behind against the Illini, who held a 38-23 halftime lead.
Missouri started to chip away at the lead midway through the second half. Jason Horton’s 3-pointer off a Linas Kleiza screen capped an 8-0 Missouri run and cut the Illini lead to 43-35 with 12:06 left. Horton finished with eight points, four assists and two turnovers.
Illinois’ lead continued to dwindle as Missouri attacked the basket and drew fouls. The Tigers attepted 20 free throws in the second half. Kleiza had the most, attempting 11 of those. Kleiza finished with 25 points and was 11-for-13 from the free-throw line.
Because of Missouri’s aggressive play, Illinois’ James Augustine watched most of the game from the bench after getting into foul trouble. Augustine fouled out of the game and finished with two points and four rebounds.
“They actually outplayed us in the second half and we still came up with a win,” Brown said.
Luther Head (20 points) and Deron Williams (19) paced Illinois.
“Maybe something doesn’t happen that you desperately want to happen, you have to respond by digging in deeper and we haven’t done that at the level we need to this year,” Snyder said.