MISSOURI 78, ILLINOIS 74
Dec. 22, 2011
Score with 2:01 remaining: 70-68, Illinois
The 2011 game played out like an intricate lie.
At first, who's going to believe it? The facts are this: Illinois played with a youthful, hole-filled roster; Missouri boasted a firing squad. Illinois' best players were Meyers Leonard and Brandon Paul. Mizzou's bests were better, and their bests were everybody. They inspired fear--Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Michael Dixon, Ricardo Ratliff, Phil Pressey, and a handful of other dudes who stepped in and hit shots. They were ranked too low at No. 9. Illinois was ranked far too high at No. 24.
That season held little joy, summed up perfectly by a moment in February, where the Orange Krush chanted "N-I-T!" at Northwestern during the second half of a game the Illini went on to lose. They then lost eight of the next nine, bowed out early in the Big Ten tournament and did not qualify for the NIT.
No matter, for at least one night. Braggin' Rights has an agenda to keep, so this lie continued. And like a good lie, this one kept at it for so long, that it began to become believable. And, at the heart of the utter falsity sat Joe Bertrand, scoring at will in his first big performance as a college basketball player.
Popular opinion of Joseph Bertand pre-Mizzou game was that of a quiet, friendly kid, gifted with athleticism, but not much of a threat on the basketball court. To that point, he had done nothing. He redshirted his first year on campus (2009-10), and spent most of the next year on the bench, scoring 17 points total all season.
The next year--the year of topic--he looked the same. In the two biggest games of the year prior to Missouri (at Maryland, vs. Gonzaga), Bertrand played a total of five minutes. In the three games following the Gonzaga victory, Illinois faced Coppin St., UNLV and Cornell. Bertrand played 12 minutes, seven minutes and six minutes, respectively, scoring a total of two points in the three games.
Then the Mizzou game happened, and what do you know, the lie takes the necessary turn and you jump on board.
Bertrand exploded. He spun and weaved through traffic. He called out isolation plays for himself, and finished the play, everytime. He scored 19 points, shot 9-for-9 from the field and led the Illini to a drastic second-half comeback. The Illini were tied with Missouri with 90 seconds to play, and it's almost solely due to Joseph Bertrand.
Then we lost. We threw the ball away, fouled, took bad shots, and lost. Of all the Braggin' Rights games, this one may best tell the Braggin' Rights story, and that story is one of an Illini implosion. By every improbable measure, the Illini had chances to win. They had the entire narrative. It seemed fantastical, almost fictional. Of course, fiction is exactly what it was. Winning this game is a lie, and lies always get found out.
But at least Joe does stuff like this now.