Tigers' string of late-game mistakes prove costly in loss to Illinois

A turnover, a missed layup and a failed in-bounds in the final 1:09 -- does the Tigers' string of late-game mistakes indicate a carryover of problems from last season, or just an unlucky blip in their still-young season?

Jordan Clarkson and the Missouri Tigers folded late in Saturday's non-conference matchup with Illinois, losing their status as the SEC's lone unbeaten team.

Jasen Vinlove / USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS -- Oh, no. Here go the Missouri Tigers and their late-game woes again.

At least, that's what anyone who saw the Tigers fold so often late in games last season was probably thinking after watching the final two minutes of their 65-64 loss to Illinois on Saturday afternoon.

A turnover, a missed layup and a failed in-bounds in the final 1:09 all proved pivotal in a Braggin' Rights game that lived up to its billing as one of college basketball's best non-conference rivalries.

But hold on. Let's not get too carried away with the Tigers' late mistakes. Not after their first loss of the season, anyway.

Yes, this year's point guard, Jordan Clarkson, made a costly turnover when he lost the ball out of bounds driving to the hoop with the Tigers up two and 69 seconds remaining. The Illini followed the mistake with a 3-point basket that gave them a one-point lead.

We've just got to finish games out. We have to do the little things. That's all we can take from this game.

-- Jordan Clarkson

And Earnest Ross probably didn't need to be in such a rush driving to the basket that his forced layup barely drew iron on the ensuing possession.

Finally, it would have been nice if the Tigers could have gotten off to a decent shot when they were down a point and 4.6 seconds were left. But when Clarkson was unable to hang on to the in-bounds pass, all the Tigers could manage was a desperation 3-point attempt by Tony Criswell, a 6-9 forward they'd rather not have shooting 3-pointers. Criswell's shot from well beyond the 3-point line didn't come close to hitting the rim as the buzzer sounded.

"Tony made a not really good pass," Missouri coach Frank Haith said. "I thought if that play was clean, (Clarkson) would have had a chance to go make a play."

"It was a tough pass to catch," added Clarkson. "I was coming down full speed (and the ball was) kind of behind me. It slipped out of my hands and Tony got it. Only shot we could get."

If the Tigers had converted any of the three aforementioned plays, they likely would be going into their week-long break 11-0 instead of 10-1. Instead, in their first close game of the young season, they made one too many mistakes.  

"We've just got to finish games out," Clarkson said at least three times. "We have to do the little things. That's all we can take from this game."

While Clarkson made a valid point, you can look at the final seconds from another perspective: Missouri scored a go-ahead basket on a play run to perfection while Illinois was more than a little fortunate on its winning possession.  

First Missouri: Down a point with just 15 seconds left, the Tigers did exactly what they wanted to. Clarkson in-bounded the ball, got it back and then did what he does best. He started driving to the basket. When Illinois closed him off, he passed to Jabari Brown in the corner who, with a good look, nailed a 3-pointer that gave Missouri a 64-63 lead with 14.9 seconds left.

"We knew they were going to have to choose, stop me at the basket or sit on Jabari," said Clarkson, who scored a game-high 25 points and had eight assists.

Then it was Illinois' turn. The Illini got the ball to their leading scorer, Rayvonte Rice, with the plan of letting him make a play. Rice, however, was forced into the corner and lost control of the ball. As he was heading out of bounds, he was able to toss it towards the top of the key.

Tracy Abrams ended up with it, drove to the basket, was slapped on the right arm and calmly made two free throws for the winning points.

"It was set up for Ray on an isolation," Illinois coach John Groce said. "Ray drove it. The ball got deflected and we came up with it. That's the hardest part of the deal. Tracy made a play, drove it really hard and got fouled. Fortunately we dug it out."

Unfortunately for Missouri, it lost on essentially a busted play. That's hardly enough reason to believe their late-game misfortunes from a season ago will continue to linger.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter (@stanmcneal) or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.