ST. LOUIS – Certain things just don’t change.
Norm Stewart knew as much. After all, he is the one who recruited all 17 of them.
A few extra pounds and some gray hairs couldn’t hide it. The idea of friendly competition couldn’t quell it. The referee’s whistle couldn’t lessen it.
Stewart’s team of former Missouri basketball players wanted to win as much against Illinois on Friday at the Savvis Center as they had during their collegiate careers when he was the basketball coach at Missouri.
So it came as no surprise to Stewart when his players started tussling with their opponents. After all, it is the Braggin’ Rights Series.
“When you play, I’ve always felt this way. You ought to play to win,” Stewart said.
Brian Grawer, one of Stewart’s last recruits at Missouri, exemplified this attitude.
“It was serious. Everybody wanted to win,” Grawer said. “When you’ve guys of that caliber on both sides, you just don’t play to be playing, you want to win and at the end of the buzzer. You want your score to be out on top.”
And thanks to Grawer’s free throws down the stretch, Stewart and a team of Missouri alumni beat the Lou Henson-coached Illinois alumni 56-51 on Friday in the Alumni Challenge Rivalry Series.
“That’s not the first time you’ve beat Illinois with free throws,” Stewart told Grawer after the game, remembering Grawer’s performance as a freshman in 1997 when he beat the Illini with free throws at the end.
It also seemed fitting that Friday’s special edition of the Braggin’ Rights Series resembled the battles of old: tough, competitive, physical.
“It’s supposed to be fun game, but we’ve all played Division I, and we’ve all been in that competitive atmosphere, so it’s going to come out,” said Jason Sutherland, who played at Missouri from 1993-1997. “There’s too much between Missouri and Illinois.”
The physical nature created tensions that were evident throughout the game, but became particularly pronounced in the second half after Illinois’ Lucas Johnson (1998-2002) fouled Missouri’s Kelly Thames (1993-1998) on a fast break dunk attempt.
Several minutes later, Johnson got into an inside battle with Missouri’s Jevon Crudup (1990-1994) that sent both players to the floor. Subsequent pushing and shoving led to a double-foul.
Sutherland responded on the ensuing inbounds pass by lowering his shoulder and dribbling into Johnson, sending Johnson to the floor. Sutherland was called for a charge.
The climax came on Illinois’ next possession when, during a scramble for a loose ball, Thames shoved Johnson near halfcourt, sending Johnson to floor and Grawer with him.
Players on both benches stood up, and even Henson, who needed a walker to get around, seemed ready to go on the court to break things up as he rose from the bench. But cooler heads prevailed.
“There was nothing dirty about anything going on out there, it was just two competitive teams wanting to win,” Johnson said. “You’re getting 30 grown men who have played competitive college basketball together and still want to win and have pride. So it’s not like they’re going to go out there and lollygag around and play like they’re not used to playing. Everyone out there’s used to playing as hard as they can, and it’s not going to change just because it’s an alumni game.”
As Illinois’ Kendall Gill said, “You still have to have a little fire in your belly.”
For Missouri’s Doug Smith, who had to watch the game from the bench because of a broken left wrist, he enjoyed the fire and then some.
“That’s just the competitiveness coming out, you want to win at all cost. That just typifies how the game has been played over the years,” said Smith, who ate a bag of popcorn on the bench in the second half. “I was a little hungry so I had to get a little popcorn up under my belt.”
Although players hadn’t lost their competitive edge, it was apparent early that some of the players were out of shape, possibly the result of too much munching.
“I’m going to need some oxygen on the sideline,” Illinois’ Steve Bardo said to his teammates less than three minutes into the game.
Henson said he joked with the team before the game that the three fattest players couldn’t play and had to help him coach.
“It’s fun to see how people progress and their bodies change and how their game changes a little bit,” Sutherland said. “We gave a lot of people a pretty hard time about (added weight), but I won’t mention any names.”
Missouri’s Corey Tate, who played in the mid-1990s, said he felt fine after the game.
“I didn’t play that many minutes, which I’m glad because you see those other guys are going to be sore in the morning,” Tate said. “So I’m OK.”
Gill, who donned his blue No. 13 “Flyin’ Illini” jersey in warm-ups, said he plans on spending the rest of his weekend relaxing, watching basketball and putting medicine on his floor burns.
Despite showing signs of aging, the players still displayed some of their old selves.
Gill did his best Michael Jordan impression, making a running one-hander in the lane late in the second half.
Missouri’s first basket came when John Brown made a reverse layup after he and Thames worked the give-and-go to perfection.
“It’s fun for all the players, and that’s what it’s all about,” Stewart said.
It was even fun for Stewart, who spent the 30 minutes leading up to the game talking with Henson on the sidelines.
There was even a little trash-talking involved.
“I told coach I heard he was trash talking,” Henson said. “But he told me, ‘I only talk like that because you started it.’
“Norm also told me the Illini were favored tonight but did that to put pressure on me.”