I’ve always wanted to go.

If you’re an Illini hoops fan, you know how big the annual game vs. Mizzou in St. Louis is. Fittingly placed at the end of the non-conference slate, the yearly basketball rivalry between Illinois and Missouri is built on consequence.

After all, when a game is literally dubbed “Braggin’ Rights” it’s pretty obvious what it’s all about.

But just like anything, you don’t really know what its about until you go and see it yourself. It was complicated during my four years in Champaign, as us students were usually back in Chicago for Christmas break already. Especially considering the Tigers won four in a row following a 9 year run for the Illini, which ended my freshman year at U of I.

So when Illini coach John Groce finally bucked the trend and brought braggin’ rights back east of the Mississippi last season, I had a pretty good feeling that 2014 would be the year to finally go.

Eventually, about four months ago, me and 11 friends pulled the trigger. Tickets, hotel rooms, the whole nine yards. We’re doing the damn thing.

About nine hours after we left pitch-black Chicago early Saturday morning, Illini senior Rayvonte Rice did his best job of telling us it was the right decision. A long day of celebrations and shenanigans in St. Louis only reinforced that notion, and hell, I even learned a few things on the way.

This is one of the most underrated rivalries in college basketball, and all of sports.

Rice’s game-winner was Exhibit A of the drama shown on a regular basis at the Scottrade Center. Since 2000, eight of the 15 meetings have been decided by six points or less. Three of those eight meetings were decided by one point, and the buzzer-beater Saturday broke a tie game that was back and forth from the get-go.

I’ve always noticed this on TV, but when you have a great game like Saturday’s the two halves of fans pitted across from each other makes for a rollercoaster-like feel in the building. With one half destined for heartbreak and the other glory, and so much on the line, it’s apparent how tense the atmosphere is down the stretch. For the last minute or so, the entire place was on their feet.

As I mentioned, this rivalry is built off consequence; and the polls usually reflect that coming into the game. This season’s matchup was only the fourth since 2000 to not feature a ranked team, and in that same span there were six times both teams were ranked. Illinois and Missouri are regarded as two of the better programs to not win a NCAA title, which gives the rivalry a natural air of respect and competitiveness. The Illini were heavily favored to win Saturday, but that doesn’t mean anything in this one. Toss the spreads out the window.

Crazy stat: since 1940, either the Illini or Tigers have made an Elite Eight appearance in every decade except the current one. Illinois has 30 NCAA tourney appearances to Mizzou’s 25. 

But not to John Groce.

Braggin’ Rights may fly under the national radar, but don’t tell that to John Groce. Rocking the signature bright orange blazer Lou Henson made famous, Groce had an old school surprise for his players’ outfits as well.

Without any pre game hype or warning, the Illini tore off their warmups right before tip to reveal the legendary white throwbacks from the 1989 Flyin’ Illini team, which feature the words ‘Fighting’ and ‘Illini’ sandwiched around the number.

As you could imagine, a notable buzz spread throughout the Illini half of Scottrade Center, and a quick glance at Twitter revealed the same.

It’s unusual to see alternate uniforms not get leaked prior to a game, so that shows this was absolutely Groce’s doing. The orange blazer, out-of-nowhere Flyin’ Illini throwbacks, and a second consecutive Braggin’ Rights win over Mizzou. John Groce knows what us Illini fans like.

Kim Anderson and Missouri are going to be just fine.

Before Saturday, most of my Mizzou friends were expecting the worst- sending texts that read along the lines of “you guys are going to kill us.” I, knowing this rivalry, told them to take the 10 and a half points and run to the bank.

Missouri coach Kim Anderson made me look pretty smart, as the young Tigers brought it the entire game. Missouri’s best players Saturday – Johnathan Williams, Wes Clark, Montaque Gill-Caesar, Jakeenan Gant and D’Angelo Allen – are all either freshmen or sophomores, and the young pups showed up in their first Braggin’ Rights game. That’s a good sign for both Anderson and the competitive balance of the rivalry.

St. Louis is perfect for Braggin’ Rights. 

Not that it would ever change, but you don’t realize how ideal St. Louis is set up for this game until you go. Obviously proximity is key to any rivalry, and the fairly equal distance from both campuses has made the home of Nelly the home of Braggin’ Rights basketball since 1980. And when you’re coming from Chicago like us, it’s just close enough to say ‘road trip’ in a positive tone.

That road trip concluded at the Hampton Inn downtown, basically a soft nine iron from the Gateway Arch. Out our window was a clear view of Edward Jones Dome, with the Scottrade Center just a little over a mile away. And on the walk between the two is the city’s third and best sports arena, Busch Stadium.

Busch got a big upgrade with the recent addition of Ballpark Village, a bar and restaurant district built right next door that’s essentially a cleaner and indoor (with a retractable roof) version of Wrigleyville. Following Rice’s buzzer-beater the twelve of us basically ran there, and within 30 minutes the place was packed with 80% orange.

A short and spirited walk back to our hotel for power-napping and showering preceded a shorter walk to dinner on Morgan Street, still within stumbling distance from the Arch- which effectively served as our North star.

After bouncing around Morgan Street, a trip to the Lumiere Place Casino proved to be rather successful for those were actually allowed in; and for those who weren’t, well, it’s good the hotel wasn’t very far.

Braggin’ Rights brings out the best in everybody.

While I would have probably placed a substantial bet at Lumiere that we were the drunkest group of 12 in St. Louis that night, perspective smacked us in the face when the last group finally got back to our room for the night (after the 2am Taco Bell trip of course).

He wasn’t there by morning, but our random friend found a legitimate haven outside our hotel room for the time being. I’ll be honest, his audible snores made it pretty difficult to snap this without laughing.

After rehashing and piecing together the night over continental breakfast Sunday morning (and me wondering why my right knee felt like I strained my ACL), we hit the road to Chicago. From Rice’s game-winner to the rather eventful day in St. Louie, one thought prevailed over the millions going through my pounding head about our first Braggin’ Rights experience. 

Just how we drew it up.

(All photos by Peter Hahn)