Late in the second half, Missouri freshman Johnathan Williams III took an inadvertent elbow to the jaw and staggered backward several steps.
It was sort of a welcome for Williams to the Braggin’ Rights game, the gritty annual nonconference showdown that pits the Tigers, who entered play unbeaten and ranked No. 23, against that other border rival, Illinois.
Staged in the Scottrade Center with a crowd of 21,987 divided evenly at half-court, the game’s 33rd edition Saturday was a sufficiently physical and tense affair — and an entirely new experience for Williams.
“The atmosphere was amazing,” he said. “I’ve never played in anything to this level.”
Unfortunately for Williams, he also experienced another college basketball first when junior Tracy Abrams sank two free throws with 4.6 seconds left, lifting the Fighting Illini to a 65-64 victory.
Illinois’ victory was not only the first loss of the season for Missouri, 10-1, but it also snapped the Tigers’ longest winning streak in the series at four games.
“They were more physical than us in terms of loose balls they came up with … and that was the difference in the game,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said.
A razor-thin difference. Both teams shot 18 free throws and made eight three-pointers. Missouri owned a 33-32 edge on the boards, but Illinois, 10-2, committed fewer turnovers.
“We’ve got to do the little things,” said MU junior Jabari Brown, who finished with 10 points and seven rebounds. “We missed free throws, we had some turnovers. We don’t win or lose the game on one play. It’s an accumulation of things.”
Ultimately, the Tigers fought hard, but the Illini fought a little harder.
Still, even Williams, who finished with six points and five rebounds in his Braggin’ Rights debut, landed his share of blows.
Missouri trailed 59-58 approaching the final 2 minutes when Williams swatted Illinois junior Rayvonte Rice on a drive to the basket.
Williams’ third block of the game led to senior Earnest Ross drilling a three-pointer from the right corner for a 61-59 Tigers lead with 1:54 remaining.
When Ross, who finished with 13 points and a game-high eight rebounds, corralled a forced three-point attempt by Abrams, who led Illinois with 22 points, Missouri seemed to be in control.
Impatience on offense helped the Illini rally.
Tigers junior Jordan Clarkson — who finished with a game-high 25 points, including 16 in the second half — turned the ball over on a drive to the basket.
That allowed senior Jon Ekey, a William Chrisman graduate who scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds, to shoot the Illini back into the lead with one of his two three-pointers.
Rice’s free throw with 23 seconds remaining — after Ross charged his way to the basket much the way Clarkson had only to commit another of Missouri’s 14 turnovers — extended the lead to 63-61.
“A lot of teams are going to clog the paint, so we have to do a better job finding our shooters and sharing the ball more,” said Clarkson, who added eight assists and six rebounds. “… We’ve got to go to the rim stronger and look to finish instead of looking for the contact.”
Missouri, which dropped to 12-21 in the Braggin’ Rights series, threw one more punch, taking the lead with 14.9 seconds remaining on Brown’s three-pointer from the right wing coming out of a timeout.
Abrams’ free throws 10 seconds later — the 15th lead change in a game that also featured six ties — proved to the difference when senior Tony Criswell’s 40-foot prayer went unanswered as time expired.
“It’s got to hurt a little bit, but there’s a lot of things we can pull from this game to get better from,” Haith said. “The loose balls — there was a couple of plays, and they’re going to be sick when they see them.”
The Tigers have a week to rebound before the season’s first true road game Dec. 28 against North Carolina State in Raleigh, N.C.