Nunn ignites Braggin’ Rights as Illini hold off Mizzou

By Alex Roux

Tweet: Kendrick Nunn ignites Braggin’ Rights as Illini hold off Mizzou, writes hoops columnist @aroux94

It didn’t feel like a Braggin’ Rights game at first.

The crowd at Scottrade Center in downtown St. Louis was tepid, its numbers weakened considerably by the lack of buzz surrounding the two struggling programs on the court. At, 14,456, the announced attendance fell more than 5,000 seats short of any mark set in the last 20 years at the annual rivalry matchup between Illinois and Missouri.

But with eight minutes left in the first half, when Kendrick Nunn threw down a vicious one-handed dunk on a feed from Malcolm Hill, the Illinois half of Scottrade Center stirred. And when Nunn intercepted a Mizzou pass seconds later and rose up for another filthy jam, Illini fans roared to life. The atmosphere that makes the Braggin’ Rights game so special year after year was back.

Nunn added another bucket on a baseline jumper, and the Illini opened up a 35-21 lead over the Tigers. That margin stretched to 20 in the second half, and Illinois held off a furious Mizzou comeback to win 68-63 and take Braggin’ Rights back to Champaign for a third straight year.

Illinois (8-5) now leads the rivalry series 23 games to 12 over Mizzou.

As the Illini players hauled the humongous Braggin’ Rights trophy off the court Wednesday, all was merry in Illini-land. Fans in orange — far outnumbering the Mizzou contingent — went home happy. Head coach John Groce went back to the locker room and gave his best attempt at the dab dance as his team laughed and celebrated around him.

Even if a five-point win over a bad Missouri team looks unimpressive on paper — Illinois actually dropped one spot in Ken Pomeroy’s advanced basketball ranking system after the victory — the Illini’s celebration was warranted. Missouri’s governor was at the game, and so was former Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog. The Tigers crowd got especially riled up when former Mizzou football coach Gary Pinkel and his replacement Barry Odom were shown on the jumbotron.

University of Illinois president Timothy Killeen also took in the action, as did St. Louis-area native and former Illini Tyler Griffey. Braggin’ Rights is one of the biggest events of the year for either team, always drawing a who’s who of prominent figures from both schools in the audience. When your team wins, you deserve to celebrate.

The game was far from stress-free for Illinois, even though it looked that way when it led 50-30 early in the second half. Familiar second-half woes plagued the Illini again, as the outside shots that were dropping in the first half stopped falling. The Illini couldn’t get anything going in the paint, and suffered a 9-1/2 minute scoring drought as Mizzou stormed back.

Wes Clark sparked the comeback, scoring 21 points on the evening for the Tigers as they pulled within five with nine minutes to play and cut the deficit to 60-57 with one minute left. But Hill, Nunn and redshirt freshman Michael Finke had answers down the stretch.

Hill mercifully ended the scoring drought with a driving layup, then hit a step-back three with the shot clock winding down to give the Illini a 55-47 lead. The 6-foot-6 junior finished with 21 points.

Finke nailed a corner three with two minutes left and hit three more free throws down the stretch before Nunn put the game away for good with three more from the line in the final minute. Nunn had 19 points and 11 rebounds on the evening, and Finke added 16.

Hill and Nunn continue to establish themselves as elite Big Ten players, and Finke and Jalen Coleman-Lands are providing a scoring threat that will prevent Illinois’ opponents from double-teaming on the perimeter. Mizzou tried to on Wednesday and got burned in the first half.

While it’s concerning that second-half struggles are persisting as Big Ten play arrives, the Illini offense is clearly coming together in the absence of injured forwards Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black. This will be a perimeter-oriented team for the foreseeable future, and will have to mask their defensive deficiencies by playing above-average offensively.

Groce lauded his team’s defensive effort on Wednesday, which looks leaps and bounds better than it did in November. Mizzou did not have many talented scorers, but it’s encouraging to see Illini players picking up rotations and assignments with a higher frequency.

Illinois has done what it needed to do after beginning the season 3-5. It took care of five weaker opponents and has at least developed a bit of continuity with Groce’s lineups and sets. The first four games of the Big Ten season (Michigan, at Ohio State, at No. 1 Michigan State, No. 14 Purdue) could be brutal on the Illini, but if they can go 2-2 and weather the storm, the outlook for the rest of the season has the potential to be positive.

Michigan comes to town next for a Wednesday afternoon matchup, giving Illinois an opportunity to truly get its season back on track.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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@aroux94