ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Bruce Weber needed this one.
Barely into his first season at Illinois (No. 19 ESPN/USA Today, No. 21 AP), Weber was growing
weary of comparisons to Bill Self, who left the Illini for Kansas
after last season. Tuesday's 71-70 win over Missouri (No. 14 ESPN/USA Today/No. 11 AP) in the
annual neutral-site "Braggin' Rights" game will help quiet the
Tuesday night was my first time calling the Braggin' Rights game between Illinois and Missouri, and it lived up to its billing. There were more than 20,000 fans screaming at Savvis Center in Saint Louis, and the intensity was something special.
I learned firsthand why this is one of the premier nonconference rivalries in America.
Illinois raced out to a 21-point lead in the first half, but coach Quin Snyder's Tigers never gave up. Missouri made a major adjustment to contain Illini point guard Dee Brown in the second half.
In the end, though, coach Bruce Weber's Illini came away with a big 71-70 victory. One of the unsung heroes for the Illini was Nick Smith. More...
Asked if his players wanted to win the border-state grudge match
for him, Weber said he had another priority,
"Shoot, I want them to win it for themselves," he explained.
"They battled their butts off."
But guard Dee Brown, who led Illinois with 18 points and six
assists, said criticism of Weber was motivation.
"I don't think people understand how much heat he's catching,"
Brown said. "But he's strong, and he just wants us to play hard no
matter what. I think he's got all of our attention and we believe
in him now."
It was one that almost got away for Illinois (7-2), which
held a 21-point lead late in the first half only to have Missouri
(4-2) tie it with 1:30 to play on a 3-pointer by Travon Bryant.
Sophomore forward James Augustine scored on a layup with 58.5
seconds to play to put Illinois back on top for good. Augustine had
14 points and 10 rebounds.
"I was thinking about it as Coach Weber's game and we can't let
him down," Augustine said.
Bryant had a career-high 19 points, as did Rickey Paulding, for
Missouri, which lost for the second time in three games. Bryant
also matched a career-high with 12 rebounds and blocked two shots.
Illinois hadn't played for 10 days, but if there was any rust,
it didn't show. The Illini dominated the early going, outrunning
and outhustling Missouri.
"We knew one of their weaknesses was not getting back," Brown
Illinois took to a 9-2 lead and added runs of 16-2 and 13-2
later in the first half.
"I think we were a little shell-shocked at the beginning of the
game," Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. "I thought we attacked
well but we didn't shoot very well."
Missouri missed 13 of its first 16 shots.
Despite a size advantage for the Tigers, Illinois worked the
ball inside for layups, hooks and short jumpers and built a 40-19
with 4:20 to go in the first half. Missouri committed 11 of its 18
turnovers in the opening half.
But Missouri went on a 15-2 run of its own to cut the margin to
eight with 17:33 to go, then chipped away, eventually tying the
game at 67-67 on Bryant's 3-pointer.
After Augustine's basket, Missouri's Arthur Johnson had a chance
to tie the game again, but missed a short jumper with 23 seconds
left. After Brown made two free throws with 19.7 seconds left,
Missouri's Jimmy McKinney hit a 3-pointer with 0.4 seconds left.
After a timeout, the Illini iced the game by simply inbounding the
Illinois has won the last four "Braggin' Rights" games and 15
of the series' 23.
"When you come to Missouri, you know this is one of the games
that is played every year, and it's very tough to swallow that I've
never been on the winning team," Bryant said.
The sellout crowd at the Savvis Center was about a 60-40 split
of fans, with the mostly yellow clad Missouri fans slightly
outnumbering the mostly orange Illini faithful. But the folks in
orange had the most to cheer about. Among those in attendance were
U.S. Sens. Kit Bond and Jim Talent of Missouri, and Attorney
General John Ashcroft, a former Missouri governor.
Paulding, a preseason All-American who was shooting 33 percent
from the field entering the game, was 6 for 10.