Illinois didn’t make it easy on itself Wednesday, but it survived.
The Illini, after being ahead by 20 points in the second half, barely held on in a 68-63 victory over Missouri in the 35th annual Braggin’ Rights game at Scottrade Center.
Junior Malcolm Hill, a Belleville East graduate, topped the Illini with 21 points, while junior Kendrick Nunn added 19 points, 11 rebounds and four steals — and an outstanding block on Missouri freshman Terrence Phillips — and freshman Michael Finke had 16 points.
It was the third consecutive victory in the series for the Illini (8-5), who extended their overall winning streak to five. Missouri, which cut its deficit to three in the second half, fell to 5-6. Illinois’ three successive wins in the series have come by a combined nine points.
“It was another high-level game in terms of the intensity,” said Illinois coach John Groce, who improved to 3-1 in the series. “The intensity from both teams was terrific. We all know it’s going to be a heavyweight boxing match before the ball tips. We understand you’ve got to fight. Both teams did that.”
Hill ripped off his jersey after the final seconds ticked off the clock.
“I wanted to be like my big brother, Rayvonte Rice,” the 6-foot-6 Hill said of his former teammate, whose 3-pointer at the buzzer lifted Illinois to a 62-59 victory over Missouri last season. “I got a friendly text from (Rice) after the game. I explained my reasoning and he said I didn’t make a game-winner like he did.”
Illinois led 41-27 at halftime and surged ahead 50-30 on Nunn’s 3-pointer with 16:12 to play, but Missouri scored the next 15 points to trim its deficit to 50-45. Junior Wes Clark (21 points) sparked the run with seven points, including a 3-pointer to make it 50-43.
The Illini missed 12 straight shots during its scoring drought of nearly 10 minutes, which finally ended when Hill drove in for a layup to make it 52-45 with 6:52 remaining.
Freshman Kevin Puryear (12 points) answered with a layup for the Tigers, but Hill followed with perhaps the biggest play of the game, stepping back and popping a long 3-pointer over Puryear that beat the shot clock and put Illinois ahead 55-47 with 5:14 left.
“I heard the bench go, ‘Three, two, one!’” Hill said, mimicking the shot-clock countdown. “That type of shot, I’ve worked on a countless amount of times in the offseason. To be honest, that’s part of hard work paying off. When you get so many repetitions practicing tough shots like that, it’s easier to do it when you’re in the game.”
Missouri coach Kim Anderson complimented Hill, who has 55 points in his last two games and has reached double figures in all of the Illini’s 13 contests.
“Hill makes a great shot,” Anderson said. “I’ve seen Illinois play a couple of times, but after our game Saturday, I was really impressed with Hill and just the versatility he has.
“And then Nunn, man, he’s a guy who gets his shot off quick. Tonight, he not only gets his shots, he gets 11 rebounds. I like both of them, and I like Finke. He’s a matchup problem for a lot of teams.”
Illinois seemed to re-establish itself when its lead moved to 60-52 on Finke’s 3-pointer from the right corner with 2:13 to play. But Missouri struck back on sophomore Jakeenan Gant’s layup and a 3-pointer by Phillips that made it 60-57 with 1:02 remaining.
Hill made two free throws to make it 62-57, and after Clark made one of two free throws to close Missouri within 62-58, Finke made a free throw that made it 63-58. Finke missed his second attempt, but grabbed the long rebound and was fouled.
Finke made two free throws to make it 65-58 with 25.5 seconds left. The Tigers rallied 66-63 on Clark’s spinning shot in the lane with eight seconds left, but Nunn clinched the win with a pair of free throws with seven seconds left.
“I try not to think of myself as a freshman,” Finke said of his key plays down the stretch. “I was here last year. I didn’t play, but I’ve been here watching them for a year. I was practicing with them and everything. I knew it was a bigger game than other regular-season games. I just had to treat it like another game, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Illinois was outrebounded 43-32 and shot 40 percent (23-for-57), including just 25 percent in the second half (6-for-24). The Illini committed seven turnovers and were able to turn 15 Missouri turnovers into 15 points. The Tigers shot 44 percent (25-for-57).
The game was viewed by a sparse gathering of 14,456. Many of the seats in the lower bowl, and even more in the upper deck, were unoccupied. Typically, the game is a sellout.
“I’ve got more to worry about than that,” Anderson said. “I saw a lot of empty seats. If it was two ranked teams coming in playing, that would probably enhance the crowd. I think it’s the worst possible day in the world to play, Dec. 23.
“I understand it’s a television thing, but a lot of people are already gone for the holidays or, like me, they have to do shopping. (But) it’s a great game and still a great atmosphere.”