ST. LOUIS – Go ahead, Illini fans. Reach fearlessly into that stocking, the one hung by the chimney with care.
There’s a present from dear ol’ Santa in there, wrapped in orange and blue. Santa did some last-minute shopping Saturday night at the Scottrade Center and lo and behold, the jolly old man came up with a most unexpected gift.
Disbelievers can grumble and moan and, yes, it looked for a while in the second half that Santa might re-gift that present to Missouri. But despite some stumbles, missed free throws and a hold-your-breath feeling down the stretch, Illinois made it five straight in this rivalry game, winning 70-64.
This is the same type of game Illinois lost against Wake Forest, Northwestern, Maryland, UNLV and New Mexico State.
This is the same type of game Illinois lost because it started slow and finished clumsily.
This is the same type of game that forced Illini fans to cover their eyes. But not this time. Not this game. Not once Illinois got the same kind of start Usain Bolt gets running 100 meters.
On the same week that took from us the great announcer, Dick Enberg, there are just two words that come to mind.
A basketball team that has spent much of this season trying to not be its own worst enemy sprung to life Saturday with a buzz saw defense that chopped Missouri off at the knees before it could show a crowd of 21,289 why it came in as a five-point favorite.
Illinois contested every pass, blocked every lane, disputed everything Missouri did or tried to do. By halftime Illinois led by 20 and Missouri had gagged up 16 turnovers.
It is that first-half jewel that should help Illini fans dance through the holidays like the guy who stayed too long at the Christmas party sloshing rum and eggnog all over his ugly sweater.
“By far our best half of the year,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said.
The highlight moment of the game came at the end of the first half when Illinois played for a final shot and put the ball in the hands of its brazenly confident freshman guard, Trent Frazier.
Everyone in the house knew Frazier wanted that final shot. He had a look that might as well have been spelled out in neon. “I’m shooting it!” And he backed away from former Illini recruit Jeremiah Tilmon, rose up in his face and pulled the trigger.
Ka-boom! Frazier’s 3-pointer gave Illinois a 42-22 lead and as he floated off the court, he raced toward a wall of delirious Illini fans and gave them a victory salute.
Put that snapshot in the trophy case that houses the best Illini Braggin’ Rights moments of all time.
Underwood is more and more and more coming to understand that Frazier, despite his freshmen mistakes, is cold-blooded and fearless in big moments. He wants the ball. He wants the pressure.
Did he force the issue on some of his drives? Yes, of course. But he also landed at the free throw line 11 times and made 10 of them. His 22 points led the Illini (9-5) and he was backed by Leron Black’s 20.
Black had such a good night that he capped it off by getting a “yes” on his courtside post-game marriage proposal to his girlfriend, Sheila Segura.
Illinois was just 6-for-25 in the second half as Missouri made its inevitable push. But when the heat was turned up, Illinois didn’t melt away in defeat.
As Underwood wrapped up his post-game press conference, he knew he could loosen his tie and prepare for a very merry Christmas, his first at Illinois.
His team had played its most complete half of the season. “Now I have a standard I can hold these guys to,” he said.
And his team beat a good Missouri team despite not playing a complete game.
Maybe the best is yet to come.