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Monday, April 4

Orange invasion -- St. Louis style

Illini roll into their first-ever title game          Send a link to a friend

By Greg Taylor

[APRIL 4, 2005]  ST. LOUIS -- See you in Saint Louis! That was the phrase the Illini have used for 12 months as they attempted to keep their eye on the ball. St. Louis was hopping Saturday as the Final Four express rolled into town, and the Illini, in their fifth-ever Final Four and first in 16 years, didn't disappoint the loyal fans. Laclede's Landing was literally painted orange Friday and Saturday as thousands of orange-clad maniacs descended on the city by the Mississippi.

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 game.

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.

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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!

[Greg Taylor]

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