In the loss, the Illini get a big game from sophomore Joseph Bertrand.
At this point, the basketball season is judged by the big games. After losing by 16 points in Chicago last weekend, No. 25 Illinois came to this river town looking to make some friends by stealing a win. With a 78-74 loss to No. 9 Missouri Thursday in the annual showdown at Scottrade Center, the Illini failed to earn the Braggin' Rights but might have found a player in the process. Missouri exploded during an early first-half run and led by 13 points midway through the second half, but the Illini took the lead in the second half behind a 17-3 surge sparked by reserve sophomore guard Joe Bertrand. "Coach was telling us this is a big game, so leave everything on the court,'' said Bertrand, who scored a career-high 19 points on 9 of 9 shooting. "I took that and ran with it. "It's always hard. A loss is never good, but we took a big step. I think we really got better as a team.'' Missouri won for the third straight season in the rivalry that's as much of a Christmas party as a hoops thriller, but it was a breakout game for Bertrand, whose biggest contribution to the game of basketball prior to this night was his two championships in the state prep dunk contest while at Sterling High School. With Missouri going with a four-guard lineup, the Illini rallied with one of their own, after Bertrand earned more playing time following a strong practice performance and an individiual meeting with coach Bruce Weber Monday. Said Weber: "I just told Joe, 'I can't help you. You have to come and be a player. If you're a player, you'll be a player. I can't wave a magic wand. I can't scheme or draw something up. You have to be a man and be a player.' "Going 9 for 9, I'm surprised, but I'm happy for him.'' Bertrand scored nine points in the big Illini surge in the second half that allowed the Illini to grab a 62-61 lead on two free throws by Meyers Leonard with 7 minutes 1 second left. "Coach told me to not doing anything you can't do,'' Bertrand said. "It's a confidence builder to go out there and play well like that.'' The lead changed hands seven times before Missouri converted in a series of half-court possessions. Guard Brandon Paul also scored 19 points while center Meyers Leonard finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds. The Illini fell to 11-2 overall. The Illini open play in the Big Ten by hosting Minnesota on Tuesday. Missouri improved to 12-0, and the Tigers must be considered a strong challenger to win the Big 12 title after finishing fourth in the Big 12 preseason poll. The Tigers entered the game with an average margin of victory of 27.7 points a game, the biggest in the nation, but Missouri looked comfortable down the stretch after blowing the lead by going too fast. "It's a fine line when a team is really athletic,'' said Missouri coach Frank Haith. "It takes time to develop that understanding of when to go, when not to go. "We don't want to play at warp speed all the time. We want to run offense. We really needed to run offense and execute. At the end, we needed to make plays. We did a nice job of making plays.'' Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon scored 18 points apiece to lead Missouri. Missouri used an explosive 17-2 to erase an early 7-2 deficit and take control of the game. Illinois rallied within 26-22 late in the first half, but Missouri grabbed the game by both hands with finishing the first half with a 41-30 lead, thanks to a rebound dunk by guard Matt Pressey a few ticks before the buzzer. When the game was over, Missouri hoisted the huge trophy, and Haith won one of the biggest games of his coaching career. "It's got to be one of the greatest basketball events in the country,'' said Haith, the first year Tigers coach. NOTES: Illinois volleyball coach Kevin Hambly, who led the Illini to a runner-up finish in the NCAA Tournament last weekend, attended the game and sat a handful of rows behind the Illinois bench. . . Missouri evidently didn't want to be friends. They didn't shake hands during the pregame warmups. John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow hin on Twitter @JohnSupinie. Illinois report card Front court -- B Meyers Leonard finished with a double-double, but he strayed from the hoop too much. Back court -- A D.J. Richardson was steady and helped the Illini in the first half, then Brandon Paul made a bigger impact in the second half. Bench -- A If the Illini want to win big games, they need help from the bench. On this night, it was Joseph Bertrand. Let's see if this is a start of something big or a one-hit wonder for Bertrand. Overall -- B+ The Illini didn't get it done down the stretch. Nevertheless, this was a step in the right direction for a program looking to regain some competitiveness and fire. Illinois takes two days off, then prepares for the Big Ten opener Tuesday against visiting Minnesota.