Illinois won for the first time ever at
the Final Four with an impressive 72-57 win over a strong Louisville
team on Saturday in St. Louis. The Illini won on the strength of
their seniors and their bench and will now enter into most analysts'
dream matchup, a date with No. 2 North Carolina. The Tar Heels
overcame a sluggish first half to beat Michigan State 87-71 in the
undercard of the evening. Illinois is now 37-1 on the season and
ties the all-time NCAA record for wins during a season, yet the
Illini find themselves as underdogs heading into Monday's night
Illinois began the game
against Louisville with strong outside shooting, as Deron Williams
and Luther Head both nailed 3-point baskets and the Illini jumped
out to a quick 8-2 lead. The Cardinals, who played their 2-3 zone
defense for most of the first 36 minutes of the game, dumped the
ball down low on offense and quickly created a potentially troubling
scenario for the Illini in regard to foul trouble. Illinois was
called for the first seven fouls of the game, and Louisville was not
whistled for a foul until the 8:50 mark of the first half.
The first half was a back-and-forth
affair, as the Illini seemed poised to make a run several times,
only to see the Cardinals jump right back into the game. Dee Brown
led the Illini with eight points in the first half, while Luther
Head chipped in six for the Illini. The boys in orange shot 19
3-point baskets in the first half, making just six, and as the
halftime break began, they led by just three points at 31-28. One
key for Louisville in the first half was the absence of senior Roger
Powell, who played just five minutes and scored just two points. And
all of that was about to change.
The second half began with senior
Powell exploding on offense. After watching Louisville take its
first and only lead of the game at 33-31, Powell took over, scoring
12 of the next 14 points for the Illini on two 3s and a monster
follow-dunk of his own 3-point miss. The surge by the spiritual
senior seemed to give the 20,000 Illini fans in attendance hope, and
Illinois looked ready to pull away at 50-44 with 12 minutes left.
But Louisville refused to quit, and
a quick 5-0 run seemed to give the Cards big-time momentum as the
teams took a media timeout with 10:04 left. We were pretty nervous
at this point, and wondered if Powell could continue his run or if
one of the superstar juniors, Williams or Brown, would soon score
their first points of the half. What we saw next brought joy to our
faces and can be summed up like this: It's Luther Time! Taking the
cue from fellow senior Powell, Luther Head went wild to finish the
game. Head scored 14 of the team's final 22 points as the Illini
ended the game on a 22-8 run and won going away 72-57. Head nailed
four 3-pointers as the Illini won and advanced yet again.
[to top of second column in this article]
Illinois' seniors (Head, Jack Ingram
and Powell) scored 34 of the team's first 35 points in the second
half and 36 of the 41 in the frame. Juniors Brown and Williams
scored just a combined two points in the second half, yet the Illini
won by 15. Even senior Nick Smith, who didn't get on the floor
against Arizona in the Elite Eight, played six productive minutes,
scoring four points and playing decent on the defensive end. After
the game, the boys in orange still seemed poised and ready for the
one more win.
Coach Bruce Weber talked in the
locker room after the game about the power of the three B's: Ball,
Boards and Bench. Take care of the ball: Illinois had just one
turnover in the first half and just seven for the game. Control the
boards: Illinois won the rebounding battle, and no one was bigger
than James Augustine. The junior scored just six points, but grabbed
11 big rebounds and controlled the glass for much of the game.
Finally, bench: Ingram, Smith, Rich McBride and Warren Carter each
contributed and helped. All three of these factors will be key on
Monday night against Carolina.
Monday's championship game is huge
for several reasons, as the Illini can accomplish three primary
tasks. First, they will win the school's first-ever national
championship. Many on the national level have referred to Illinois
as the best program never to win it all, and that can all change
Monday night. Second, they have the opportunity to set the all-time
NCAA record for wins in a season. With 37 wins, they match the mark
of three other great teams: the 1991 UNLV squad and the 1986 and
1999 Duke teams. All three of those teams failed to win the national
title. Finally, Illinois can put to bed once and for all the notion
that UNC is just plain better. Despite their great run this year,
Illinois has always heard the phrase, "But what about North
Carolina?" Monday night, the orange invasion has a chance to settle
the UNC question once and for all.
See you in St. Louis Monday night!