Though it was a lot closer than it probably should've been, Illinois won its third straight in the Braggin' Rights game in a 68-63 win over Missouri. These games are always close, so it was seemingly too good to be true that Illinois would simply run away with this one. But the Illini (8-5) were up 50-30 with 16:16 left after Nunn hit a 3-pointer, only to watch the Tigers methodically cut into the lead until the final minute. Illinois would hold on by hitting its free throws and wouldn't need any buzzer-beating heroics from Rayvonte Rice or Tracy Abrams to take home the hardware.
Here's a few notes from Wednesday's win.
Looking for another scoring threat
The trio of Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill and Michael Finke is great. They combined for 56 of the Illini's 68 points and 16 of the 26 rebounds. Outside of the trio, however, no one else has stepped up to even remotely become a threat. During a particularly long scoring drought in the second half, no one could bust the slump. Teams are going to get more and more brave sagging off non-threats like Jaylon Tate and Khalid Lewis in order to contain Nunn and Hill, so someone (anyone) will need to step up and at least stretch the defense to keep opponents honest. The Illini bench had four points on 2-of-10 shooting (0-for-4 from 3PT range). That's not sustainable, although it didn't bite the Illini tonight.
Kendrick Nunn takes #BragginRights very seriously
Kendrick Nunn pic.twitter.com/GgjQhmsLnM— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) December 24, 2015
Another close win to close out a bumpy nonconference slate
Frankly, I'm tired of being negative about Illinois athletics. It gets old pretty quick (especially after the year these guys have had). So here's a positive silver lining: instead of bemoaning this club's inability to put a team away, let's talk about how Illinois is now 4-3 in games decided by five points or less, but the Illini have won four of those last five. Sure, most of those games haven't been super close only for the Illini to let the other team back into it, but Illinois has made just enough plays down the stretch to eke out wins in the past month. This team doesn't turn the ball over (only seven turnovers Wednesday) and is still a pretty solid free throw shooting team -- both necessary pillars needed to win close games. I'm not saying this team is "clutch" or even remotely good, but it's something positive to take away from this nonconference season. Happy Holidays everyone. See you on the other side for B1G play.