I hate to admit this, but I was the guy
who packed up my computer bag with five minutes remaining in the
Arizona game and then remarked to Greg Taylor that you could put a
fork in us. That is only because I have never personally been on a
team nor had I ever witnessed a team coming back from 15 down with
four minutes to play. Oh ye of little faith.
So, when Illinois went down by 13 at
half to the mighty Tar Heels (cough) and by as many as 15 a couple
of times in the second half… let's just say you wouldn't have wanted
to be around Greg and me (not that you do any other time, but
especially then). You could've cut the atmosphere with a chain saw.
It was a morguelike experience.
But talk about unfortunate events.
First, Illinois' James Augustine does his impression of Brian Cook.
The one where in some games all he had to do was to step on the
court and he would be called for three fouls at a time. I'm not
making this up. James had five fouls in nine minutes of action! Did
these people KNOW this was the NCAA championship game? Isn't this
the marquee matchup that EVERYONE was clamoring for since Midnight
Madness? But, I regress.
So, when Illinois tied the game at
65 and once again at 70-all, I was as stunned as I was at the
Arizona game. All I kept thinking was that if we got one more shot
to drop, we were going to have something incredibly amazing happen
Talk about unfortunate events.
Illinois got some great looks down the stretch. Deron Williams had a
good one and Luther Head had two or three. Unfortunately, digging
such a huge hole meant playing the toughest defense ever in the
second half, and that took a lot out of the guys' legs. As those
good looks clanged off the rim, our title hopes dissipated.
We were so close. I don't know the
Carolina players or coaches at all (though I have met Roy Williams
on two occasions), but I doubt that they deserved this title as much
as the men in orange!
I can't do this anymore.
I'm moving on. These Illini kids
just went farther and accomplished more than ANY other team in
Illinois history. That is something that should be celebrated. That
is something that should be revered. That is something that should
be respected. That is something that should NEVER be forgotten.
Unfortunate events or not, I will
NEVER forget this team!
Illini celebrated their 83rd basketball banquet (believed to be the
longest running in the nation) this week, and the report out of
Champaign showed the following players as award winners:
leader -- James Augustine, 7.6 rebounds a game, presented by the
Throw Award -- James Augustine (how many of you had him in the
pool?), 50-59, 84.7 percent
Improved -- Jack Ingram (that was an NC… no contest)
Henson Courage Award -- Roger Powell Jr. (goes to guy who takes
the most charges)
Battle Most Inspirational Player -- Roger Powell Jr. and Fred
Award -- Dee Brown, with Luther Head a close second, (given in
honor of Matt Heldman)
- MVP -- Luther Head, Deron
Williams and Dee Brown (you'll NEVER see three like them!)
[to top of second column in this article]
Director Ron Guenther spoke and thanked everyone who was a part of
the team's success. The only omission was that he should've thanked
himself, as he is a huge part of this team's success. He said people
will always remember this team, not just because they were the first
to advance to the NC title game but for these three things:
- The 2004-05 Illini squad
redefined the meaning of "team."
- They re-exemplified the moniker
- NO other team in 100 years played
in the nation's final game.
Coach Bruce Weber thanked everyone
too. He told a story about his and Dee's trip to California for the
Wooden Awards. He said they showed a highlight reel and some of the
footage was of the UI-UNC game. Coach said that Dee tugged on his
shoulder and said, "Wish you were there."
He also went out of his way to thank
YOU, the fans. He said that YOU were the difference-makers. And at
times this season, I have to agree with him. I'll never forget the
noise at the Allstate Arena.
If time and space allowed, I could
include information the report contained about each player. I'll
convey only what was said of the seniors and one junior who's not
Williams -- Coach said that as the team bus approached St. Louis
for the Final Four, Williams kept telling Weber to sit down. Weber
asked him why, and Williams said it was because the coach's head
was blocking the team's view of the Arch!
Nkemdi -- Had a late-season injury. As the team prepared for the
NCAA tourney, Fred told the coach he was sorry that he could not
help the team prepare.
Smith -- Leaves the Illini with the most rings in school history
(six, I think), most degrees and was an important part of the
Powell Jr. -- ESPN called him Illinois' "glue guy." Coach said,
"I'd like to point to the sky and say thank you for Roger!"
Ingram -- Two schools and four coaches. He improved more than
anyone. His attitude and leadership were second to none!
- Luther Head -- Made the most 3s
in a season of all time... attempted the most too. He is our
"explosion" and a very special player. What I'll remember the most
is how he changed as a person. I appreciate that. (Ed. note: I
have no idea where this team would have been without Luther Head.
Certainly two BT titles, a BTT title and a trip to the FF would
NOT have been foregone conclusions without him. Whoever you are
out there in Illini land that gave this kid a break and helped him
turn his life around, I and Illini Nation humbly say, "Thank
Coach Weber summed it all up by
talking about the stress he went through and how tired he was the
last month of the season. He said he felt like he was going to die.
Then he said that all the assistant coaches were sitting around
hoping that that might happen because they all wanted a chance to
coach this team.
One last thing in the report from
Champaign was this. The 2004-05 Illini basketball team not only
painted the Assembly Hall ORANGE, they painted the city, the state
of Illinois and the nation ORANGE. Even a series of unfortunate
events can NEVER change that!