ST. LOUIS — Everything was sailing along for Illinois midway through the second half.
The Illini had just battled back from an eight-point deficit after sophomore guard Trent Frazier pulled the latest trick out of his bag with a floater he kissed off the backboard before falling in to give the Illini a one-point lead against Missouri.
Then the momentum, the fundamentals and the swagger that Illinois had built slipped away in a matter of seven minutes. As a result, Missouri left the Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Saturday with a 79-63 Braggin’ Rights win to snap a five-game Illinois win streak in the series.
“They made just about every play in the last seven minutes of that ball game," Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said.
Javon Pickett and Jeremiah Tilmon signed their National Letters of Intent to play in Champaign, to be a part of the the Illini, but they bolted to Missouri before ever putting on an orange game jersey. They sported yellow jerseys on Saturday to spur the Tigers.
Pickett picked apart the Illini (4-8), scoring 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting and Tilmon was an unmatched force in the post with 16 points and 12 rebounds. They were the perfect role players for Mizzou leading scorer Jordan Geist, who scored 20 points and buried four 3-pointers, that included a string of three straight possessions in the first half where he knocked down a triple each time.
“It means a lot," Tilmon said. "We lost five straight. This year we got the ‘W’ that’s all we could ask for. It was a good game, an aggressive game, that’s what we like."
Trent Frazier scored a game-high 28 points, connecting on six 3-pointers for the Illini. There were no secrets about how much this game means, which was only exacerbated by Missouri's additions of Pickett, Tilmon and guard Mark Smith, who scored five points and had six rebounds. Frazier, though, tried to stay the course.
“I knew that it was going to be that kind of game, them having three of our players," Frazier said. "Being in my second year, I kind of stay focused and stick to the game plan. I try to stay focused and play basketball. The emotion was really high tonight. We were getting after it. They just fought way harder."
Illinois coach Brad Underwood knew this game was going to bring an extra punch — it always does, which he saw first hand last season.
“It was probably about what I thought it would be," Underwood said. "This game is fun. This game is what it should be about. It’s great to have it in this city that cares so much about basketball — it’s halfway in between. You have two programs that have tremendous history. When you get that, you're going to have passionate fans and passionate players.
“The side stories are for you guys and I don’t worry about it very much. You talk about it. Our strategy was to make Mark's catches difficult and not let Tilmon get easy touches and obviously Pickett is a guy who ended up hurting us. We had a game plan for every player, and we didn't take it further than that. It was a typical scout, but it was emotional."
Frazier's floater came with 7:43 left in the game to give Illinois a 56-55 lead. Tilmon quelled the momentum on the next possession, finishing over guard Ayo Dosunmu, who fouled Tilmon in the act, turning it into a three-point play, and the game-changing run was on.
Missouri (8-3) went on an 24-4 run after that lead to bury Illinois in the final seven minutes. The only thing that went wrong for the Tigers from that point to the end of the game was a monster dunk attempt by Tilmon bouncing off the rim with less than a minute left that would have crumbled the roof of the Enterprise Center in front of 16,397 fans.
“We didn’t communicate on our defense," Illinois guard Aaron Jordan said. "That’s something we’ve got to work on. It was evident. Guys were out there not on the same page, so we missed rotations and they capitalized."
Tilmon heard boos from the crowd, and he could only assume that his name and face were strolling across the big board hanging over head.
The boos persisted. Next up was Pickett, who heard more boos. Then, the loudest of all came for Smith, who Tilmon said received the worst ovation of the bunch.
Smith hit a 3-pointer and a layup, and Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said the guard was used as a decoy at times to get other players open. Smith heard the brunt of the boos from the crowd after suiting up for Illinois in this game last year.
“It’s got to be a tough one, emotional," Martin said. "I thought he did a great job. I knew he would be prepared because of the time he puts into his game."
Underwood was particularly disappointed in both the bench points (six, all from Andres Feliz) and assists (six). Illinois prides itself on sharing the basketball. Underwood is a firm believer that 20 assists each game nets a win.
“We’ve got to take pride in assists and sharing the ball," Jordan said. "We watch teams like Golden State and the Rockets and how much they share the ball."
Martin was frank that losing this game last year made for a less-than-stellar Christmas. This year, it's the Illini headed back to Champaign with a sour taste in their mouths.