ST. LOUIS — Every victory is significant for an athlete, but some of them have a little more meaning.
That was the case Saturday afternoon for Illinois junior guard Tracy Abrams in the 33rd Annual Bud Light Braggin’ Rights contest against the Missouri Tigers.
Abrams buried a pair of free throws with 4.6 seconds left to lead the Fighting Illini to an 65-64 upset victory over the No. 23-rated Tigers at the Scotttrade Center.
But, the junior from Chicago wasn’t just thinking about himself and his teammates when the final buzzer sounded. He also remembered the seniors from last year’s team (Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Kevin Berardini) that were a part of four straight losses for the Illini in the annual series between the schools.
“I was definitely thinking about those guys. They were great teammates. To get one is great and it’s a way to represent the Illinois shirt for those guys,’’ said Abrams, who had a season-high 22 points.
And while its the biggest win of the season for Illinois (10-2 overall), Abrams was a little reserve in his celebration while junior teammate Rayvonte Rice removed his shirt to show off his Illinois tattoo.
“We are excited about the win and we’re going to celebrate it,’’ Abrams said. “I was thinking about our former guys how they never got one and the opportunity to get one was a privilege for me. I can’t explain the feeling that was going on.’’
Abrams, who has been scrutinized recently for his play in losses to Georgia Tech and Oregon, showed the type of leadership that everyone has expected from him this season. He scored nine of his team’s final 14 points and his three-point play with 6 minutes, 47 seconds tied the game at 53-53, setting up an incredible finish.
“Tracy was a warrior tonight,’’ said Rice, who finished with 14 points for Illinois. “He played great. He made big plays. He scored when he needed to score.’’
His contributions were not limited to his play on the court.
“I don’t think it’s a particular play that stands out,’’ said Illinois coach John Groce. “What stands out to me is his disposition in huddles. He was so locked in and very vocal. He wanted to talk in a couple of the huddles and we let him. He has made strides in vocal leadership. He always been a tough dude, but in terms of being more vocal, he has grabbed on to it.’’
Abrams also grabbed onto the opportunity to make the play at the end of the game with Illinois trailing 64-63 after a 3-pointer by Missouri’s Jabari Brown.
The final offensive play for Illinois was originally designed for Rice, but as he drove to the basket, the junior guard from Centennial lost control of the ball.
After a little scramble, Abrams found himself with the ball at the top of the key with just under 10 seconds remaining. He had no doubt what he needed to do in that situation.
“I was thinking be aggressive,’’ he said.
Abrams was fouled on the drive and went to the line for two free throws. He calmly made both shots, giving the Illini a 1-point lead.
“I was very confident in that situation,’’ he said. “We shoot free throws every day in practice, so it was about repetition and having confidence in my shot.’’
Missouri, which fell to 10-1 with the loss, had one final shot but Tony Criswell’s 35-foot shot at the buzzer came up short. The Tigers wanted to get the ball into the hands of Jordan Clarkson, who had a game-high 25 points, but Clarkson couldn’t handle the inbounds pass.
“It was a tough pass to catch,’’ said Clarkson. “I was trying to go full speed and the ball was just behind me a little bit. Tony still got a good shot.’’
But Clarkson knew that one play wasn’t the difference.
“We just had to make a play,’’ he said. “We had to make a stop at the end of the game. We just didn’t finish the game the way that we wanted to.’’
That something that the Illinois players and coaches have also said this season after losses to Georgia Tech and Oregon. This time around they were on the right side of the ledger.
“I thought our guys had a lot of toughness and I thought we had a lot of guys step up and make some plays,’’ Groce said. “We have been talking about it a lot. At some point, talk is cheap, you have to step up. We felt that the biggest deal was that we were allowing too many points per possession late in a couple of these games.”
“We had to get stops and rebound, and let the rest take care of itself.’’
Illinois will continue its string of three straight neutral site contests with a 1 p.m. game next Saturday at the United Center against Illinois-Chicago.