Rice turns frustration to elation for Illini fans

ST. LOUIS — As Saturday’s Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis between Missouri and Illinois ticked down to its final minutes, Illinois fans were frustrated.

Frustrated that the Illini were letting an inferior Mizzou team hang around. Frustrated that the Tigers seemed to hit every tough shot they took. Frustrated at the thought of possibly ceding braggin’ rights to Missouri fans for an entire year.

But when Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice’ hit a step-back three at the buzzer to give his team a 62-59 win in front of 20,070 fans at Scottrade Center, every bit of frustration was replaced by pure joy. I can only imagine Rice and his teammates had a similar feeling as they celebrated in a pile by the scorer’s table while orange-clad fans screamed from their seats. 

No matter how poor a team Mizzou has this year (and they are poor at 5-6), Rice’s game-winner became one of the best moments in Illinois basketball history the second it went through the net. Snatching possible victory from the hands of a hated rival is rare, and Rice gave Illini fans an iconic memory to hold onto.

Prior to Rice’s dagger, some of Illinois’ showing was forgettable. Aside from the pleasant surprise debut of some sweet Flyin’ Illini throwback uniforms, Rice putting the team on his back, and a nice first half from sophomore guard Kendrick Nunn, the Illini struggled as they limped to a 32-30 halftime advantage. 

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    Much of their struggles came from behind the 3-point line, as the Illini didn’t convert a three until Ahmad Starks finally knocked one down in the closing seconds in the first half. They only hit two more treys until Rice’s winner, and finished 4-of-18 from distance on the afternoon.

    We all thought outside shooting would be a major strength for Illinois, especially after it lit up opponents from deep early in the season. Instead, the Illini have continued to flounder when shooting threes against high-major competition, and it continues to be a concern moving forward.

    As Illinois head coach John Groce expected, the game truly played out like a heavyweight boxing match. Although it’s easy to see how some fans might be frustrated with the Illini’s low margin of victory over a bad Missouri team, it’s no surprise the Tigers got up for a rivalry game. Mizzou coach Kim Anderson said after the game that he saw some of his young players grow up and show what they’re capable of, and he has good reason to be encouraged by what he saw.

    But I’m encouraged by some of the things Groce’s team showed as well. They didn’t fold down the stretch when their opponent was playing well. They limited their total turnovers to eight and out-rebounded Mizzou. And their two guards who have struggled, Starks and Aaron Cosby, showed their value to this Illini team as they contributed down the stretch.

    Starks scored 13 points on 6-of-13 shooting, and hit some crucial mid-range jumpers late in the game to keep the Illini in it. And while Cosby only registered two points on 1-of-4 shooting, he proved that he can contribute in other aspects of the game besides on offense. He pulled down seven rebounds, including several huge boards down the stretch to help limit Mizzou’s second-chance opportunities.

    If Cosby can contribute defensively and as a solid rebounding guard, Groce will be justified in giving him significant playing time until he finds his 3-point stroke. Cosby and Starks are just so critical to the success of this team. If they can be effective, the Illini will be able to compete with nearly all the teams on its schedule going forward. 

    As expected, the Braggin’ Rights experience was a fun one, and once again proved that Illinois and Missouri are engaged in a heated annual rivalry that won’t die anytime soon. 

    Barring a truly special run, Illini fans likely won’t remember many details about this Illinois basketball season years from now.

    But they’ll remember the last Saturday before Christmas 2014 in St. Louis, when Rayvonte Rice beat the Tigers at the buzzer. 

    Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @aroux94.