Final Four bound
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Comeback is one for the ages as Illini 'March to the Arch!'
[MARCH 28, 2005]
Illinois is heading to the Final Four for the first time in 16
years, with a one-point overtime victory over a good Arizona team in
a game that earned the title "instant classic." The Illini trailed
by 15 points with four minutes to play, and by eight points with
just over a minute left, but refused to quit and rallied for the
90-89 win. Junior Deron Williams, who scored just four points in the
first half, was huge down the stretch in regulation and in overtime,
and senior Luther Head, hobbled by a hamstring pull, gutted out an
effort on both ends of the court despite the pain. Williams finished
with 22 points and 10 assists, while Head scored 20 points and had
A joyful, relieved and exhausted Coach Weber tries
to explain what happened in the final minutes of Illinois' stunning
90-89 regional championship victory over the Arizona Wildcats. The Illini advance to their first Final
Four since 1989, where they will
meet the Louisville Cardinals Saturday at 5 p.m. [picture by
The game began with back-to-back
3-point baskets for the Illini by Dee Brown and Roger Powell, and
Illinois seemed to be in control for most of the first half.
Illinois led by three at 17-14 after Springfield's Rich McBride
nailed his first 3 of the postseason, and the Illini looked to be in
great shape as coach Bruce Weber called timeout with just under four
minutes in the half and Illinois leading 34-27. However, the timeout
proved to be a real turning point for Arizona, who closed out the
half on a 7-2 run to cut the Illini halftime lead to two at 36-34.
Williams didn't seem particularly sharp in the first 20 minutes,
closing the half with five turnovers to go with his five assists and
four points. Brown was huge in the first half with 11 points, while
Powell chipped in nine.
the halftime break, we were pretty concerned about how the half
closed. We wondered if the Wildcats might have some momentum and
were afraid the visitors from the West might have built some late
confidence. What ensued over the next 16 minutes seemed like a
nightmare from Illini past. Arizona didn't just play well for most
of the second half, they did something not seen this season -- they
dominated the Illini. Channing Frye was a man among boys, and the
Illini found themselves trailing by double digits for the first time
this season. The dream of a Final Four run seemed to be dead and
buried, but the Illini refused to quit, and before long, their
"March to the Arch" goal was resurrected.
Down 77-63 with just under three
minutes to play, the Illini closed regulation on a 17-3 run keyed by
huge shots from Williams, Brown and Head. Steals by Jack Ingram and
Dee Brown were key in the run, and when Williams nailed a 3 with 40
seconds to play, Illinois was tied at 80-80 and had the look of a
champion. Arizona had a chance to win the game late, but strong
Illinois defense kept Frye or star Salim Stoudamire from even
getting a look. Brown tried for the home run pass with five seconds
left, and disaster looked possible as the pass was tipped and
Stoudamire was ready to fire off a potential game-winner. However,
Head was there to block his shot and help send the Illini to
The overtime session was Deron time,
as Williams hit two key 3's and assisted on a dunk by Roger Powell,
while Head converted yet another steal into a layup. Illinois looked
to be in good shape with a 90-84 lead, but Arizona refused to quit.
Five points from Hassan Adams gave the 'Cats a chance, and as Adams
readied for a shot at the buzzer, destiny was in his hands. However,
destiny was wearing orange and blue on this night, as Adams' shot
was short and the Illini realized they were Final Four bound.
[to top of second column in this article]
The scene after the game was one we
have dreamed of: Illini players wearing hats and T-shirts labeled
"regional champs"; the Illini coaching staff hugging each other
joyfully as tears rolled down Weber's face; members of the media
exchanging high-fives; and Allstate Arena rocking with Illinois
mania like it was the Assembly Hall. As the team cut the nets and
the press conference began, we reflected on the emotion of the
evening. From dead and buried, this bunch of Illini now found
themselves heading for the grandest stage of all in college ball:
the Final Four!
Illinois will play Louisville at
5:05 p.m. on Saturday in the first game of the day, while North
Carolina and Michigan State will match up in the nightcap. Much more
will follow on the events of the week, but one great opportunity
involves the open practices on Friday afternoon at the Edward Jones
Bottom line? That's easy -- Illinois
is going to the Final Four!
avenged the 2001 regional final loss against Arizona.
Ten placed three teams in the Elite Eight, while no other
conference had more than one. The Big Ten also has two teams in
the Final Four for the first time since 2000 at Indy (MSU and
was named the Chicago Regional MVP, while Head joined him on the
all-regional team along with Arizona's Adams, Stoudamire and Frye.
made an all-time record 16 3-point baskets against Arizona.
Smith failed to appear in a game for the first time this season
and seemed very uninspired after the game.
Bill Murray sat right behind the Illinois bench and was quite the
Illinois cheerleader all weekend long.
was said to have about 15,000 fans in attendance out of the total
of 17,000 that the Allstate Arena holds.
is now 6-0 all-time in NCAA games played in the Chicago area.
Illinois fans don't care for Lute Olsen, but we were really
impressed by his class in the post-game. He refused to blame the
refs, gave the Illini lots of love and answered every question
the shuffle of the game was the great defense Williams played on
Arizona's superstar Stoudamire.
James Augustine had his first sub-par game of the postseason and
also appeared to injure his knee somewhat early in the second