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December 20, 2013

Former Illini share Braggin' Rights memories


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Sam Maniscalco played plenty of big games at the Scottrade Center as a Bradley Braves point guard. But it was his one game as an Illini in the St. Louis venue - a 78-74 loss - that stood out the most. The Illinois-Missouri Braggin' Rights atmosphere has that kind of effect on people.

"I've had the opportunity to play in that Scottrade Center for four years before that for the MVC Tournament, but it was never as electrifying or as packed as it was for the Braggin' Rights game," It's certainly a game that is very unique because it's on a neutral court. It's split right down the middle, which when people told me that I really didn't believe it until I showed up and was out there shooting around. It's definitely an electrifying atmosphere. It's one of, I would say, the most fun games of the year and a game that the guys look forward to most throughout the year. It should be a good one. It's a very athletic Missouri team, and it'd be great for the Illini to get one."


Robert Archibald spent his senior year of high school in St. Louis, but one year in the area really didn't prepare him for the Braggin' Rights game.

"Probably not until the first year I played in it. Obviously I went to one year in high school in St. Louis. I knew it was a big game, obviously having so many from my school going to Mizzou. It was a big game for me getting to go home, in essence. But I was actually thinking about that this week, and I never really enjoyed playing in that game. There was so much pressure and emotion. I really enjoyed winning it, and I really enjoyed the bragging rights, but that was a tough game to play in. Or it was for me at least.

"The intensity is off the charts. What you have to do is play hard to try and keep it in check. With the way both fan bases are so desperate to go crazy and the back and forth, if the other team scores two buckets it could feel like a 15-0 run. You kind of have to keep your composure in check to feel like the sky is not falling.

"I think those games became so personal for everyone. We had a few tough losses the first few times, and that just didn't sit well for anyone. So when we were able to come back and win those last two my junior and senior years, the emotional swing and the way you feel after those games is just an incredible feeling.

"There's no reason to ever change a thing with it. I went down last year to watch. That's easy a top-five sports experience. There was a point at one point last year where both fan bases were kind of chanting back and forth at each other almost like some of the soccer matches in Europe where the fans get so into it. They're so vocal. The atmosphere is almost unreal."


Meanwhile, Sean Harrington grew up in the Chicago suburb of Elgin, far away from the estuary of Illini and Tigers fans in the southwestern part of the state.

"I didn't know a lot about it coming into college. It's one of those games that TV doesn't do it justice. It really doesn't. When you watch it on TV, you cannot feel that vibe that's going on in the building. You can't prepare yourself for it. All the coaches, all the players that were on the team previous when I came in as a freshman, they talk to you about it. They tell you about it to try to prepare you for it, but you can't. It's when you first walk into that arena. It has a feeling of no other game. It doesn't feel like an NCAA Tournament. It doesn't feel like a home game, road game or a hostile environment. It just has its own unique feeling to it. I always say it's a high school supersectional on steroids. Everybody has probably been to a high-school supersectional, and that's what it is. It's just out of control, but it's 22,000 instead of 4,000. It's a great environment. It's the best environment I've been a part of in a college basketball game. You can't get half the stadium going crazy on every single play [anywhere else]. Every single whistle, half the crowd hates it and half the crowd loves it. Every single bucket, half the crowd hates it or loves it. It's an awesome experience, and because of the experience and because you can't prepare the guys for it in practice you usually see it dominated by older players. It's rare that you see a transfer or a freshman come in there and have a great game their first time just because of the atmosphere. It's really, really difficult to get yourself prepared for it.

Stephen Bardo, though, grew up in the battle grounds of the Braggin' Rights rivalry: Carbondale, Ill. Watching the game every year on TV burned images into his brain.

"I could tell that when you watched it on television that in December the intensity was awfully high for just a regular game. The game used to be played at the old Checkerdome. On television, you could see the people that had smoked cigarettes because there was a haze up in the air over the court. It was for bragging rights, so there was a lot of beer flowing. You could pan into the stands and the fans were going nuts. You could tell by watching it that it was an unusual atmosphere and that the players really had a high level of intensity for a December game.

"I think [one of the reasons it works so well] is that it's in one of the best sports towns in the country, which is St. Louis. I think they're underrated in terms of hosting sporting events. It has a feel that St. Louis can provide an event like that. Two, I think you have two very proud programs, some very prestigious conferences. It's still hard for me to say Missouri is in the SEC, because I still remember them as in the Big Eight. Back in the day, it was the Big Eight versus the Big Ten, two of the best conferences in the Midwest. Now, it's Big Ten versus SEC, which is still very prestigious. Three, you have two very passionate fan bases. The Illini are all over the country. Missouri fans are all over the country - especially in the media. I got to hear crap from people at ESPN and Big Ten Network this week every year based on this game because they went to school at Missouri. It's a fun rivalry. The fan bases are passionate and it's in St. Louis which is one of the best sports towns in America. To me, it's the best nonconference rivalry in the country. I know people in Kentucky get mad when I say that, but that's what I think."

Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at espncu.com. You can contact him at jeremy@espncu.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU

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