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Tuesday, April 5

Illini close, so close, but no championship          Send a link to a friend

Rally late to tie, but can't nail 3s down the stretch

By Greg Taylor

[APRIL 5, 2005]  ST. LOUIS -- Throughout this storybook season, friends and family have asked me how it all will end for Illini basketball 2004-2005. My answer was simple: "Get me to April." As I sat on press row Friday afternoon at The Ed, I made a promise to myself: "However it ends, I'll be happy." Most of Monday, I just didn't feel good about the game. I couldn't stop thinking about the six McDonald's All-Americans and seven future NBA players who would suit up for UNC for the championship game.

And Monday night in St. Louis, we watched the final game of the Illini season, as the boys in orange fell just short, losing to North Carolina 75-70. Illinois went down fighting, played incredibly hard the last 20 minutes, and just couldn't knock down the shots needed late in the game. Illinois finishes the year 37-2 -- can you believe that? 37 wins -- the all-time NCAA record for a season (shared with three other clubs).

The first half was a picture of how not to begin a game, as Illinois looked tight and found themselves down quickly 9-2. UNC was on fire in the first half and controlled the tempo for most of the first 20 minutes. Illinois shot just 27 percent in the first half, compared with the 50-plus percent shooting from Carolina, and the Illini found themselves in trouble. Just five of 19 3-point shots fell in the first half, and at the break the hole was pretty deep, as Illinois trailed by 13 at halftime, 40-27.

I didn't move from my seat high above the court in the football press box during the 22-minute halftime break. I just sat and thought about the Illini. What a ride it had been. I hoped so many who have recently joined the bandwagon would be "fair" in the words they spoke or wrote about the game. I found myself already thinking defeat. I wondered if the ride was about to come crashing to the hardwood.

The second half began with a clinic of post play by UNC center Sean May. Held to just eight points in the first half, May exploded out of the gate, as Carolina extended their lead to 15 on three different occasions. But the Illini refused to quit and rallied from down 47-32 to within two at 54-52. We started to wonder if something special was in the works. Another Carolina explosion moved the lead back to 10 at 65-55, but Illinois kept on firing.

A 10-0 run by the boys in orange propelled them to a 65-65 tie, and minutes later Luther Head nailed a 3 to tie the game at 70-70 with just under three minutes left. Head and Deron Williams were huge in the second half, and Jack Ingram played like a champ. Timeout was called and Illinois needed a stop, which they would get in the next possession. However, in the last two-plus minutes of play, Illinois missed five good looks from 3-point land and Carolina had just enough to grab the win and title by five.

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After the game, the scene was the story of contrasts in many ways. I saw so much disappointment and even tears in the eyes of the Illini and so many of their fans. As North Carolina coach Roy Williams celebrated his first championship, the pain in the eyes of everyone orange was obvious. But, through it all, the Illini held their heads high. Coach Bruce Weber was great in the post-game press conference and showed me once again how blessed the Illini Nation is to have him as a leader. In the end, Carolina was better, but this amazing run by Illinois is something I will never forget.

The question for many is, "What comes next?" I expect Deron Williams will go pro this summer, and my fear is Dee Brown may try to follow, although another year at Illinois would help both the Illini and Brown. It's hard to picture no more Roger Powell, Luther Head, Jack Ingram or Nick Smith, but that is the reality of the moment. And don't be surprised if a couple of assistant coaches don't move on to head coaching adventures (Jay Price to Eastern Illinois?). Weber, badly in need of a vacation, will instead be out recruiting on Wednesday.

As you can probably tell, I can't figure out a way to end this article. Part of me doesn't want it to end. The ride has been unbelievable -- beyond my wildest Illini fan dreams. I guess I'll have to steal a line from a cheesy song -- "I've had the time of my life!" I really hope the rest of Illini Nation feels the same way this morning.

[Greg Taylor]

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