ST. LOUIS — All that was left for Trent Frazier to do was launch the ball into the air at midcourt to officially kick off the celebration.
The freshman guard scored the last seven points of the game to give the University of Illinois a 70-64 win Saturday night at the Scottrade Center, sending Missouri to its fifth consecutive loss in the annual Braggin' Rights series.
Frazier led the Illini with 22 points and added three steals in his first installment in the series.
Illinois (9-5) was on life support, watching a 20-point halftime lead slowly slip away. But with 2 minutes, 7 seconds left, and a seven-point lead, Frazier drove into the paint, connected on a finger roll off the glass and absorbed a foul from Jeremiah Tilmon.
Frazier connected on the free throw, re-extending the Illini lead to 10.
But the resurgent Missouri offense answered back with six unanswered points.
First it was a layup by Kassius Robertson, who scored 20 of his 22 points in the second half, to cut the lead to 66-58 with 1:56 left.
Then it was a tip-in from Tilmon, who heard the plethora of “boos” from Illini fans in his first appearance against a team he previously signed a national letter of intent to join, to put the Illini on the brink, clinging to a 66-60 lead with 1:04 left.
With 26.4 seconds remaining, Kevin Puryear hit a floater to trim the lead to four.
Frazier did the rest.
He hit his next two free throws to stretch the lead back to six, then came up with a key defensive rebound and hit his next two free throws to extend the lead to eight to all but seal the victory.
“Trent was huge,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “We put the ball in his hands and he played like a veteran for the most part. If he would have made a couple layups, he would have had a really, really big night. But, I thought he controlled the ball game for the most part.”
Even Frazier admits the crowd of 21,289 was a bit daunting at first, especially given the revived nature of the once nationally prominent rivalry.
“They put a lot of trust in me and coach Underwood does a great job of preaching to me about having confidence in myself,” Frazier said. “In the last game I missed those a few shots and missed those two big free throws, but tonight I came in and stepped on the line and made those free throws.”
He wasn’t even concerned about his career-high point total.
“I’m not really worried about the points,” Frazier said. “I make the plays when I can but it was a team effort today.
“We came in and did our job and played defense and that's what got us the win.
Then there was Leron Black. The grizzly Illini big man, who went scoreless in this game last season with six rebounds, scored 20 points and secured seven boards.
To top it off, he proposed to his girlfriend, Sheila Segura, after the game and capped off his big night with a reaffirming “Yes.”
He didn’t even let Underwood in on his plans.
“I didn’t tell coach before because he probably was going to think it would be on my mind and he was going to call me soft.”
If Illinois didn’t win?
“I would have probably just waited until Christmas,” he said.
Black scored 13 in the first half and came up with big buckets in the second when the Illini needed them the most.
“Leron hit a three early, and we established him on that block,” Underwood said, “That makes it so much easier for everybody when he gets going.”
The Illini shot 6 of 25 in the second half from the field, and didn’t convert their first field goal in the half until a jumper by Michael Finke with 12:40 left.
Then Black followed with a jumper of his own.
But perhaps no shot was bigger than the 3-pointer he converted from the top of the arc to give the Illini a 60-50 lead with 4:43 remaining.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Underwood said. “We haven’t been winning those games and we have not been making those plays.”
None of the second half happens had the Illini not come out swinging in the first half.
It was the most complete effort of the season on the defensive side of the ball. Illinois held Missouri to 33 percent shooting in the first half and forced 16 turnovers to take a 42-22 lead into the break.
“I can honestly say I was not expecting the 20-point halftime lead knowing how good Missouri is,” Underwood said. “That’s a tremendous amount of credit to our players. We had a very, very good week of practice and that was far and away our best half defensively of the year.
"Now we have to continue to grow on that and do that for 40 minutes. I thought we threw the first punch and got them on their heels.”
Maybe the spark was lit when Underwood watched the Tigers against Stephen F. Austin, his former team. He admits he watched Tuesday's game with a close eye as the Tigers committed 21 turnovers.
It’s exactly what Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin and his team know they have to clean up, despite their 10-3 record, when SEC play begins.
“They came out early in the first half and set the tone,” Martin said. “We dug ourselves in a hole and it was a tough one to get out of.”
Freshman Mark Smith scored 11 points for Illinois, with two steals.