Half of the Scottrade Center screamed “Gold and Black,” and the other half yelled “Orange and Blue.”
For the first time in weeks, the Illini started strong right out of the gates, hardly taking their foot off the gas and playing their best 20 minutes of basketball all season.
“We were pretty good the first half, on both ends,” said Illinois head coach Brad Underwood. “Now I have a standard — that first half — that I can hold these guys to because that was our best half.”
Defensively, they forced three turnovers and converted those on the other end, thanks to five points apiece from Black and Smith. The Illini jumped out to a 10-2 lead and forced Missouri Head Coach Cuonzo Martin to call a timeout with 15:58 left in the first half.
Illinois extended its lead when a 7-0 run gave it a 17-5 advantage.
The run gave the young squad a little too much confidence as the Illini sped themselves up on the offensive end, including Kipper Nichols and Mark Smith heat checks, which led to turnovers. The Tigers pulled within nine, giving life back to their fans.
A 13-2 run, started on the defensive end, ended the sputter.
Illinois’ plan — to deny the wing pass from Missouri freshmen Jeremiah Tilmon in the post — was clear. If that didn’t work, then hard front the post entry to him to limit as many Tilmon touches as possible.
“Our whole deal was no post-ups,” Underwood said. “I knew we were dialed in, and that’s a big step for Michael (Finke) and Leron (Black) both.”
The Illini stressed the Tigers and forced them into bad decisions and 16 first-half turnovers.
Then Trent Frazier happened.
He pulled up from three with just a little under a minute to go in the half, just because he could. Luckily for Frazier, he hit it — otherwise, Underwood might have dragged him out of the game.
The following possession, Frazier runs the ball-screen, making it obvious he was taking the last shot to cap off the half. He gets the switch onto Tilmon that he wanted, takes one dribble, crosses over, steps back and sinks the three to end the half and give his team the 42-22 lead.
“It’s all in the coaching staff, they put a lot of trust in me,” Frazier said.
Despite the size disadvantage, Missouri couldn’t stop Black on offense. Whether it was his signature wing jumper, or post hook-shot. He had 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting at the break.
Frazier and Smith combined for 18 points at half.
The Tigers came out and rattled the Illini at the start of the second frame, playing with more physicality. This allowed them to cut the deficit to 12 points and keep their opponents without a field goal for nearly seven minutes.
“We found a way to not make it easy and still win,” Underwood said. “We can grow on that.”
Michael Finke, with a new, short hairdo, bailed out the Illini, but only with a stepback jumper as the shot clock expired.
The game then became a free throw contest as both teams went into field goal droughts and instead, had to get points from the charity stripe.
A Frazier free throw gave the Illini a 57-50 advantage with 5:46 remaining in the contest.
Both sides ended their droughts as they traded shots from beyond-the-arc, but a Smith reverse layup pushed the Illinois lead to nine with under three minutes remaining.
Frazier continued to show his ability to become a big-time player down the stretch for the Illini, driving on Tilmon, finishing and drawing the foul to extend the lead to eight with 1:56 to go.
His night was not over, putting the game away with four clutch free throws to give him a career-high 22 points and the 70-64 victory over Missouri.
“The last game, I missed a few shots, missed those two big free throws,” Frazier said. “But tonight, I came in, stepped on the big line, and made those free throws.”
Despite being clearly gassed, Black’s effort never deteriorated in the second half. He poured in 20 total points and seven rebounds.
“I think we’re just getting better as a team,” Black said. “The best teacher is experience, so we had experience in these games multiple times, so I think we learned and started to figure out how to play.”
Kassius Robertson scored 22 points for the Tigers, and Jordan Barnett was not far behind (19 points), but it was not enough for them to turn the game around.
Illinois (9-5) is off for another week before facing Grand Canyon at the State Farm Center next Saturday, Dec. 30.
“I’m really old school now, I mean I love college basketball rivalries,” Underwood said. “This one has been one of the best in the history of college basketball.”