1993 Braggin’ Rights game was a classic

By Dave Matter and Stu Durando

COLUMBIA, Mo. — When the latest installment of the Missouri-Illinois Braggin’ Rights game tipped off Dec. 22, 1993, at The Arena on Oakland Avenue, Norm Stewart’s Tigers were still smarting from a 120-68 loss at Arkansas. Three days earlier, Mizzou had survived a scare from Coppin State and won by a point.

The season’s adventures had just begun.

“We were just trying to find an identity,” said Julian Winfield, a sophomore guard for the Tigers. “We knew it was a big rival game. But nobody in their right mind knew it would be the game that it was.”

Nobody, including the Fighting Illini, who came in 6-1 and ranked No. 19. The coaches and veteran players on both teams knew what to expect from the frenzied atmosphere, the crowd split in half between fans from both schools. The 13th Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis would be the final showdown at The Arena. Both teams craved one last win in the building.

“I don’t know if it was growing up in St. Louis and going to hockey games, but the old barn just had a little smoky feel to it,” said former Illini guard Richard Keene, who grew up in Collinsville. “It seemed it was louder. I loved playing on that court.”

Winfield knew the building better than any of his teammates. A transfer from St. Louis University, Winfield had played home games at The Arena before joining Stewart’s team.

“For some reason everyone comes down on (The Arena) and calls it a raggedy old structure,” he said. “But when it’s gone everyone talks about all the nostalgia it had. But it was great to play in there.”

Their final memories of the place would last a lifetime. The Tigers and Illini treated the fans to a three-overtime thriller that night, as Stewart’s senior-rich team outlasted Lou Henson’s bunch 108-107 in a game remembered for the play of freshmen on both sides.

For the Illini, a win would snatch the series back in their favor. They had won eight of their last 10 against Mizzou but lost the last two.

For the Tigers, a win could rejuvenate their season.

“We went in,” former Mizzou guard Melvin Booker said, “and had a clean slate.”

THE FIRST HALF: ‘ALL NIGHT LONG’

Missouri nipped Illinois 66-65 in the 1992 Braggin’ Rights game.

“Let’s hope, let’s pray we have half that kind of game tonight,” 24-year-old Joe Buck said to open the telecast of the 1993 game on the Mizzou Sports Network.

Buck got his Christmas wish.

The Illini were cast as the stronger team inside, led by forward Deon Thomas, who’d leave Champaign as the program’s all-time scoring leader. But the paint belonged to Mizzou’s Jevon Crudup in the first half.

Early foul trouble for Thomas negated the Illinois size advantage in the post, and Crudup went to work with six straight baskets — he shouted, “All night long!” after his first — as Mizzou pounced early. The senior forward had 18 points at halftime.

“Jevon wasn’t the most athletic guy, but he was very strong and skilled for a big,” Booker said. “He knew how to maneuver himself in traffic.”

“Jevon’s tough to guard any time,” Stewart said this week. “Some nights in some situations he would elevate his play.”

This was one of those nights, but as Illinois tried to keep pace, freshman point guard Kiwane Garris became Henson’s best weapon, routinely knifing through the lane to draw contact. A 91-percent free throw shooter through his first seven games, Garris calmly sank two more midway through the half.

Winfield’s job that night was to guard Garris.

“My hands were full,” he said.

Illinois took a brief lead just before halftime on another Garris free throw, but Marlo Finner uncorked a rare 3-pointer, off the glass no less, to give Mizzou a 42-38 lead just before the halftime buzzer.

THE SECOND HALF: ‘THIS THING IS OVER’

With Crudup dominating inside and fouls piling up for the Tigers, Henson threw a curveball in the second half, opting for a zone defense. Crudup picked up his fourth foul with eight minutes left, prompting a livid Stewart to rip off his suit jacket. With 5:40 on the clock, Shelly Clark’s jumper put the Illini ahead 64-63. The lead continued to grow as Illinois unleashed a 26-4 run, while Crudup, Booker, Winfield, Finner and freshman forward Kelly Thames ran into foul trouble.

“I don’t know that when you play sports you ever get to the point necessarily when you relax and say ‘We’ve got this thing all wrapped up,'” former Illini captain Tom Michael said. “But to say that you weren’t pretty confident at that point, yeah, you feel good about where you’re at.”

“I remember thinking ‘This thing is over,'” Keene said. “Me and T.J. Wheeler were in the backcourt talking and already thinking ahead.”

With 1:10 left and Illinois up nine, the Tigers turned to a rare source for 3-point shooting — Lamont Frazier. Marksman Paul O’Liney had yet to join the team from junior college, but that’s when MU’s senior captain made his mark.

“Lamont Frazier wasn’t the person we’d go to for a 3,” Stewart recalled. “We had two or three other individuals who had a little better record shooting 3s, but he hit a couple late and that was the key.”

Frazier’s first 3 cut the deficit to six. Mark Atkins drained two more, the second with 28 seconds left to get Mizzou within two. Finally, with Booker driving through the heart of the Illini defense, he found Frazier open for another 3 with 17 seconds left, this time to tie the game at 79. Garris turned it over on the other end to send the game into overtime.

“There was no sense of panic,” Winfield said. “There was more of a sense of, ‘Here we come.'”

In the final two minutes of regulation, Illinois missed five free throws. Garris missed three of his final four from the foul line.

THE OVERTIMES: ‘IT’S YOUR TURN’

Atkins and Finner fouled out in the opening minutes of overtime. For the first time all night, Stewart turned to seldom used freshmen Derek Grimm and Jason Sutherland, who quickly converted a three-point play.

“We had confidence,” Winfield said. “It wasn’t a leap of faith. It was, ‘Hey guys, it’s your turn.'”

“But at that time,” Stewart said, “we didn’t know we had that depth.”

Another freshman, Thames, sent the game into a second overtime with two baskets in the final 20 seconds, finishing the extra session with a dunk off Booker’s feed, one of 13 assists for the senior all-American guard.

In the second OT, Grimm provided clutch post defense and calmly swished two free throws to tie it at 97 with 19 seconds left, setting up the most memorable sequence of the game.

Garris attacked Winfield on the next possession and picked up a foul on his way to the basket — with nothing but zeroes on the clock. It was Winfield’s fifth foul. More important, Garris had two shots to win the game.

“I remember that play like it was yesterday,” said Winfield, who now works for Safeco Insurance in St. Louis. “To this day I don’t think it’s a foul. You’ve got a Big Ten team playing a Big Eight team, two physical teams. And they call that one?

“But I was pretty gratified when I turned around and saw Coach Stewart go absolutely berserk. I said, ‘OK, he’s not mad at me. He’s mad at the refs.'”

Frazier and Crudup had to restrain Stewart as he lashed out at referee Denny Freund.

From there, the next moment will live on forever in memories.

“That’s a big lump in your throat when the game could be lost on a play like that,” Winfield said. “I’m hoping for a miss.”

“No one expected him to miss,” Thomas said.

“Coach Stewart was his own Zou Crew section because he was raising a lot of hell while Kiwane was shooting his free throws,” Booker said. “He was the one doing all the distractions.”

“There’s nothing you can do,” Stewart said. “I didn’t approve of the call because it was the last call of the ballgame. There wasn’t much contact. You just wait and see if he can make a free throw. Fortunately, for us …”

“He got up and missed the first,” Henson said, “and I thought he surely would make the second.”

“He misses the first,” Keene said, “and sure enough he short-armed the second.”

“But we should have won the game anyway,” Henson said, “because when Kiwane was shooting, Norm was out there almost at half court complaining about the officials. So, he should have got a technical, but that’s OK.”

“I didn’t feel bad for (Garris) because he had on an Illinois jersey,” Booker said. “I played against him a lot in Europe and I used to bring it up a lot how he wasn’t clutch in the end.”

A 3-pointer from Sutherland on Mizzou’s opening possession of the third OT gave the Tigers a lead they’d never relinquish. Frazier, who played 54 of the game’s 55 minutes, clinched the win at the foul line in the final seconds.

Five Tigers had fouled out. Garris had imploded — he finished with 31 points but missed 10 of 22 free throws. And a legendary game was born.

“They didn’t put the nail in the coffin,” Winfield said, ‘so we opened that coffin back up and stepped out of there.”

The Illini went on to have an unremarkable season, finishing 17-11 and fourth in the Big Ten.

“The next morning we were in the film room bright and early,” Michael said. “It was not a good few days after that going into the break. The tone was not good at all. I don’t think any of us were worthy of being on a basketball team in Coach’s eyes after that game.”

For Missouri, the win defined what became one of Stewart’s greatest teams. The Tigers won 19 of their next 20 games, finished undefeated in Big Eight regular-season play. They won 28 games overall and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

“It was just destined for us to win,” Booker said. “That game turned our season around.”