It was bound to happen sometime, but that doesn’t make it any easier. If you asked me which game I would approve for the first loss of the season, I probably would’ve said Gonzaga rather than Missouri. Or, I could have been greedy and said maybe that road game at Wisconsin on Jan. 12. But, in the end it turns out Saturday would be the night of their first loss, with the Tigers triumphant vs. the Illini yet again, 82-73.
Up until the last five minutes of the game, the teams seemed pretty evenly matched. In fact, Illinois had a 3-point lead with 6:22 to go, but were then outscored 21-9 to round out the game. The Illini had just 7 TOs compared to Missouri’s 12, but that wasn’t the stat mattered. Missouri outrebounded Illinois 51-29, and led the assists 16-10.
Really, it was the rebounds that killed Illinois in the end, and some questionable shot selections. There were many instances when Missouri had a second, third, or even fourth try to make a shot, when a rebound for Illinois could’ve gone the other way. Also, there were too many trips to the basket that Illinois wasted.
Down by only 3 points with just 1:22 to go, Joseph Bertrand missed a 3, and then Missouri got the rebound and dunked the ball on the other end. Following that, Tyler Griffey missed a 3, the Tigers got a rebound, and then made another basket. All of a sudden we’re down 7 with 34 seconds to go. Brandon Paul misses a 3, Missouri gets the rebound, and the game is pretty much over. Paul finally nailed a 3 from practically half-court with 22 seconds left in the game, but the Illini were down by 6, and it was too little, too late.
I’m not ready to hit the panic button just yet. Missouri proved that they’re a good team. I questioned their abilities before the game because their only tough opponent all year was Louisville, and they lost that game. But the Tigers proved me wrong. The Illini didn’t play poorly, per say, they just didn’t play as well as Missouri. Now Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey will all graduate without ever winning Braggin’ Rights. Let’s hope Bertrand (a junior) will not let the same fate happen to him.
Paul continued to prove his abilities with 23 points, 2 blocks, 5 assists and 8 rebounds. Nnanna Egwu had a nice game, contributing 12 points and 9 rebounds (the TV had listed 10 which would’ve meant a double-double, but ESPN didn’t agree). No Illini player has had a double double all season, and I was hoping that last night Egwu or Paul would’ve made it happen. Tracy Abrams was very quiet, with just 3 rebounds, 1 assist and 4 points, but he only let the ball get away from him 1 time. Griffey really, really wanted to win in front of his near-home crowd with 14 points, 4 of which were behind the 3-point line. Richardson was also not as effective with just 7 points, while Bertrand contributed his usual spark, as well as 13 points.
Our stats don’t look too shabby, but Missouri’s look way better. I wanted just 1 double double for the Illini, and the Tigers left with 3: Laurence Bowers had 23 points and 12 rebounds, Alex Oriakhi had 10 points and 14 rebounds, and Phil Pressey had 12 points and 11 assists. With stats like those, you’d think the Illini lost by 20 points, instead of just 9.
Up next, the Illini will welcome Auburn to the United Center. If they can escape unscathed, then I will just admit that Missouri is a better team and move on with the season. However, if the Illini lose at the United Center AGAIN to a subpar team (Auburn currently has a losing record of 5-6), then I’m going to have to return to the notion that maybe new head Coach John Groce can’t perform miracles. I’m anxious to see how the team will take this loss and move on to the next. Auburn shouldn’t be a tough game, but if the Illini can’t get out of their own heads they could easily blow this game as well.
Griffey, Richardson and Paul will have to graduate with four straight losses to Missouri, but I truly hope they won’t let the same thing happen when it comes to playing at the UC. The three seniors have lost in Chicago three years in a row, and now is the time to easily break that streak and regain a little pride.
With Missouri currently ranked #12, the Illini shouldn’t fall too far in the rankings. Losses from #8 Florida (to former Coach Bruce Weber’s Kansas State Wildcats no less), #7 Ohio State, #3 Syracuse, and #16 New Mexico should help us out as well. I also feel a little better knowing that Syracuse and New Mexico also suffered their first loss of the season Saturday, proving that no team is immune.
Let’s pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get back to business next weekend. This is just a tiny bump in the road, let’s not turn it into a 10-car pileup.
The Illini will face Auburn on Saturday, Dec. 29 at 1:15 central.