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Monday, March 28

Final Four bound       Send a link to a friend

Comeback is one for the ages as Illini 'March to the Arch!'

By Greg Taylor

[MARCH 28, 2005]  ROSEMONT -- 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 four steals.

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 Jeff Mayfield]

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.

During 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 overtime.

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.

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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 Dome.

Bottom line? That's easy -- Illinois is going to the Final Four!

Illini regional notes

  • Illinois avenged the 2001 regional final loss against Arizona.

  • The Big 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 Wisky).

  • Williams was named the Chicago Regional MVP, while Head joined him on the all-regional team along with Arizona's Adams, Stoudamire and Frye.

  • Illinois made an all-time record 16 3-point baskets against Arizona.

  • Nick Smith failed to appear in a game for the first time this season and seemed very uninspired after the game.

  • Comedian Bill Murray sat right behind the Illinois bench and was quite the Illinois cheerleader all weekend long.

  • Illinois was said to have about 15,000 fans in attendance out of the total of 17,000 that the Allstate Arena holds.

  • Illinois is now 6-0 all-time in NCAA games played in the Chicago area.

  • Many 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 with class.

  • Lost in the shuffle of the game was the great defense Williams played on Arizona's superstar Stoudamire.

  • Illinois' James Augustine had his first sub-par game of the postseason and also appeared to injure his knee somewhat early in the second half.

[Greg Taylor]

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