ST. LOUIS – As his teammates swarmed for a midcourt celebration after delivering Missouri its first loss this season, Illinois point guard Tracy Abrams stomped toward the scorers' table wearing a scowl and vigorously shaking his blue jersey.
"I was just thinking about my former guys," he said of last season's seniors, who never beat Missouri in four tries.
The 65-64 victory was the first in the Braggin' Rights series for all the Illini players and coaching staff. Senior Joseph Bertrand tweeted a photo of himself with the trophy to last season's seniors, asking, "U mad?"
Coach John Groce, who broke out his orange blazer for the game, said his eyes welled after the game.
"I feel indebted to those guys," he said of last season's players. "They wanted to win the game just as badly as our guys did tonight."
The Illini (10-2) certainly worked for Saturday's victory.
Abrams scored a season-high 22 points, including two free throws with 4.6 seconds remaining to clinch the victory.
In a thrilling finish, No. 23 Missouri (10-1) took the lead twice on 3-pointers in the final 2 minutes. After Illini forward Jon Ekey hit a 3 and Rayvonte Rice made a free throw to provide a 63-61 cushion, Tigers guard Jabari Brown answered with a 3 with only 15 seconds remaining.
The Illini drew up a play for Rice, but he fumbled the ball. Abrams came up with it in the lane, but lost it out of bounds on a spin move as Johnathan Williams fouled him.
Asked if he was trying to make something out of nothing on the play, Abrams said, "No. I was being aggressive and finding a way to get to the lane, and they fouled me."
He wasn't fazed heading to the line, either.
"I went up pretty confident I would make them," he said.
After he sank them, Missouri botched the inbounds pass, which went off Jordan Clarkson before he recovered it, and Tony Criswell missed a long 3-point try at the buzzer.
"It is emotionally draining," Clarkson said. "That's a tough way to lose. But we got to have short-term memory."
The Illini fell behind 8-0 at the start of the game, and again 15-6. Groce called it a "critical juncture," as the Illini asserted themselves with a 10-point run.
Rice added 14 points for the Illini, while Clarkson's game-high 25 led the Tigers.
The Illini were coming off a loss to then-No. 15 Oregon, and Groce bemoaned the way the team had been finishing games. Against Missouri, they never let up.
"That's a heck of a win for us," he said. "I'm really proud of them for the plays they made at the end."
Illinois 65, Missouri 64
Star of the game: Tracy Abrams, Illinois, 22 points, 6 rebounds
Key performers: Rayvonte Rice, Illinois, 14 points, 4 rebounds; Jordan Clarkson, Missouri, 25 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds
Bertrand watch: 9 points (4-for-8 FGs, 1-for-1 3s), 6 rebounds (5 offensive), 2 assists, 2 steals, 5 turnovers in 29 minutes
Up next: Illinois vs. Ill.-Chicago, at the United Center, 1 p.m. Saturday