ST. LOUIS (AP)—Top-ranked Illinois faced adversity for the first time this season. That means a coaching opportunity for Bruce Weber the next time he puts in a game tape.
“Usually it’s 16-2 and there’s nothing to watch because we’re winning so easily,” Weber said after Illinois’ 70-64 victory over Missouri on Wednesday night. “It’s good to win a game and have a chance to teach.”
Luther Head scored 20 points and Deron Williams scored nine of his 19 points over the final 3:19 to help the Illini overcome foul problems, poor shooting and a second-half surge by the Tigers.
“I’d love to win every game by 20, but that’s hard,” Williams said. “We needed to win a game like this.”
Roger Powell Jr. had 14 points and Williams added five assists in a balanced attack for Illinois (11-0), which matched its season worst for shooting at 42.3 percent but won its fifth game since moving to No. 1. The Fighting Illini have won five straight in the annual neutral-site game.
This was their closest call of the season by far after they entered the game with an average margin of victory of 22 points.
“We’ve taken some steps,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. “You look at the scoreboard and we haven’t gone far enough. I think the challenge for us is to continue to grind at it.”
Before Wednesday, the closest any opponent had come to beating Illinois was Arkansas which lost by 12 points. Illinois had been shooting 53 percent, the best in the nation.
Illinois was a big favorite but expected a stiff challenge in the annual “Braggin’ Rights” game.
“It’s too big of a game, and you add the extra incentive of us being No. 1,” Weber said. “They raised their level, they battled, they fought.”
Linas Kleiza had 25 points, one off his career best, for Missouri. He was in double figures at the free throw line for the second straight game, going 11-for-13, and added seven rebounds and three assists.
He also helped put the Illinois frontline in foul trouble by bulling inside for shots.
“Linas was in an attack mode,” Missouri guard Jimmy McKinney said. “His mind was set, we told him they couldn’t guard him. They couldn’t do nothing but foul him.”
Missouri (6-5) trailed by 15 points at halftime for the second straight game. On Sunday, the Tigers were able to rally for a three-point victory over Indiana and this time they put a scare into Illinois, shaving the deficit to five points with just under 8 minutes left and then to four on Jason Horton’s 3-pointer with 14 seconds to go.
“Falling behind and coming back, that’s what we do every game,” Kleiza said. “It’s getting old, you know? We came back but it wasn’t enough to win the game.”
Illinois was 11-for-12 at the free throw line down the stretch, including two by Williams with 10 seconds left for a 70-64 lead.
Illinois played much of the game without forward James Augustine, who had two points and four rebounds and fouled out with 2:06 to go. Powell sat for a time with three fouls and backup post players Nick Smith and Jack Ingram each had three fouls.
Illinois shook off poor early shooting and appeared to have taken control in the first half behind Head, who scored seven points in the last 7 minutes. The Illini missed 10 of their first 15 shots, but went 8-for-16 the rest of the way for a 38-23 halftime lead.