COLUMN: Return of rivalry

By Lucas Deal

Editor’s note: Click here for the game story.

For the first time in six years, Illinois vs. Missouri is finally a rivalry again.

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Who else is excited?

On Tuesday night, Illinois outlasted Missouri 73-70 in a fantastic game at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. The game was extremely competitive and neither team led by more than six points during the game. But the best part of the Illini win wasn’t that the team was victorious; it was that, finally, Missouri showed up to play.

The University of Missouri basketball program has fallen on hard times recently with a scandal and a coaching change plummeting the team out of the national prominence. The Tigers won only 12 games last year, but it appears the firing of coach Quin Synder and the hiring of former UAB coach Mike Anderson has finally turned Mizzou in the right direction.

I think that’s a good thing for Illinois.

The Illinois vs. Missouri game has been a mainstay on the Illinois schedule for more than 20 years. Every year, Illini and Tiger fans from throughout the country make the pilgrimage to the Gateway to the West in St. Louis to see their teams do battle.

There has only been one problem: for the past six years, the Tigers haven’t put up much of a fight. In fact, Mizzou hasn’t beaten Illinois since 1999.

Last year, the Illini blew out the hapless Tigers 82-50. Missouri put up a fight for all of about 30 seconds. As soon as Dee and James made a couple of buckets, they just rolled over and packed it in. They didn’t even care anymore. They just wanted to get the game over.

But this year, the Tigers wanted to win.

Mizzouri came out with emotion and determination against Bruce Weber’s Illini Tuesday. Even though his team quickly jumped out to an early lead, Missouri wouldn’t go away.

The Tigers took their first lead at 22-21 midway through the first half and led by as much as six points before the break. Illinois rallied to take the lead back early in the second half but didn’t take the lead for good until a Jamar Smith three-pointer with 10:06 remaining.

“It was a war out there,” said Illini forward Brian Randle, who made two huge defensive plays to keep the Illini ahead late in the game. “(Missouri) showed us and the nation that they’re a great team.”

Illinois can take a lot from this game. They beat the No. 11-ranked RPI team in America by three points on a neutral site in an NCAA Tournament atmosphere. They played very well against a strong press and made enough clutch shots to get a win. They left the game with a signature win.

Games like this will make Illinois a better team. Games like this keep the Illini honest and give them a chance to prepare for the tough matches against Big Ten opponents.

On Thursday, the Illini will host Idaho State at the Assembly Hall. After that game, the Illini will have six days off before they reach the hardest part of their season.

They have to use this game as a springboard. They have to look at this win as proof that they are a good team. If nothing else, they have to be proud of themselves.

“We’ve got the Bragging Rights for another year and I’m pretty happy about it,” Weber said.

I guess that says it all.

Now all they have to do is keep it going.