With nine minutes left in the annual Braggin’ Rights game between Illinois and Missouri, it felt all too familiar for the Fighting Illini.
After relinquishing a late second half lead against Georgia Tech and mostly recently a seven point lead against Oregon just a week ago, what was unraveling felt like a foregone conclusion.
After leading 31-27 at half time, a rare three pointer from big man Nnanna Egwu gave Illinois a 44-39 lead over the Tigers with 13:35 left in the game.
It was starting to look like Illinois had finally turned things around and claimed the Braggin’ Rights back after Missouri held it for four years.
Of course, no Braggin’ Rights game comes without theatrics.
The Tigers ignited on a 14-2 run, taking a seven point lead with nine minutes left.
You could almost envision the headlines—young Illinois team buckles late under pressure once again, the Illini miss Brandon Paul late in games, or, Missouri simply overwhelmed Illinois.
Desperate for any sort of turnaround, Illinois found their answer from an unlikely source.
In this third season starting for the Illini, Tracy Abrams has always been a budding prospect that seemed to get better each and every year, yet failed to meet his potential.
The best way to characterize Abrams is a hardworking, solid defender miscast as a starting point guard. Abrams was recruited as a combo guard but was forced to play the role of the facilitator from the get go because of the lack of point guards on the roster.
In the facilitator role, Abrams conceded to Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson his first two years, and was now conceding to Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice and senior Joseph Bertrand early in the season.
Abrams scored 16 points against Oregon but scored only six second half points.
Abrams shot 1-7 and had seven points in one of his worst performances of the season against Georgia Tech.
After providing years of average to solid production from the point guard position, some wanted a little bit more out of the little guy. Abrams was capable of so much more.
Moments away from losing to Missouri for the third straight time in his career, Abrams finally had that break out game that everyone was waiting for.
Down seven, Abrams rallied off eight of the next nine Illinois points, completing two and-ones in the process. A jumper from Abrams gave the Illini a 55-53 lead with 6:19 left.
Missouri’s Earnest Ross and the Illini’s Jon Ekey traded late threes, with Ekey giving Illinois a 62-61 lead with 50 seconds left.
After Rice split a pair of free throws, Missouri’s Jabari Brown nailed a wide open three from the right corner—the same spot that Ross hit from just seconds before.
Down 64-63 with 16 seconds left, it was looking like the Illini had once again blown a key road game early in the season. The Tigers were prepared to grab their fifth straight Braggin’ Rights game.
Abrams wouldn’t have it.
At first the plan looked like much of the same we’ve come late in games, with the ball ending up in the hands of Rice.
After Rice mishandled the ball and barely managed to keep the ball inbounds, the ball was once again in the hands of Abrams.
Just a year ago, Abrams would’ve been glad to move the ball over to Paul or maybe look for Richardson perched in the corner.
Even just a few days ago Abrams might’ve been tempted to let Rice work his magic.
Instead, Abrams put matters into his own hands, using a spin move to drive past his defender and get fouled on his way to the basket.
A career 71% free throw shooter, Abrams made both free throws to take a 65-64 with 4.6 seconds remaining.
When Tony Criswell’s off-balanced heave from in front of half court missed everything, Illinois once again owned Braggin’ Rights over their rivals.
Even though he might object to the label, Abrams has always been a rather quiet guy. After the buzzer sounded, no Illini showed more enthusiasm. Abrams yelled, grunted and flashed his Illinois jersey in front of the camera—a sight that outside spectators have never seen from him.
Abrams finished with 22 points and 6 rebounds, but most importantly he showed that he is capable of being much more than an average point guard.
Abrams’ performance doesn’t guarantee anything for the future. For all we know, he could revert back to being simply a good passer and a solid defender—but not much more.
Perhaps no one earned the Braggin’ Rights more than Abrams—for sure, no one needed them more.
If this game ignited something inside Abrams that we haven’t seen out of him before, Missouri won’t be the only ranked team that falls to Illinois this season.