Memory Lane: Illini KO Arizona, reach Final Four

Memory Lane: Illini KO Arizona, reach Final Four


March 27, 2005: Bruce Weber's Illini made the greatest basketball comeback in school history to defeat Lute Olson's Arizona, 90-89, and reach the 2005 Final Four.

ROSEMONT – "I still don't know what happened," puzzled a weary but still healthy Luther Head.

"It's all a blur," a drenched Bruce Weber said.

Excuse these numbed participants because this Team of Destiny just got tapped by Lady Luck's wand in the most remarkable basketball game, considering the stakes, in 100 years of Illini history.

What happened was a miracle finish – "Praise the Lord," bellowed Rev. Roger Powell Jr. "He does make miracles" – in a shocking 90-89 overtime triumph that kept the title drive alive.

Even the roaring orangeclads in the Allstate Arena crowd of 16,957 began to lose hope when Arizona stormed ahead 75-60, and the Wildcats had the basketball and a 77-68 lead with 1:30 to go.

Then lightning struck.

Head's steal made it 77-70 with 1:21 showing. In the huddle, the gritty UI players tried to convince each other they still had a chance.

"Coach said, 'If we're going down, let's go down fighting,'" Deron Williams said.

"I said if it's going to be, it will happen," Dee Brown said.

And it happened ... somehow. Williams blasted in for a layup between three Arizona free throws, and Head's three made it 80-75. Suddenly pandemonium reigned as the huge crowd became a cobra around the Wildcats' neck. A mid-court steal allowed Williams to lead Brown for a layup. And still another steal on a tip by Jack Ingram set up Williams for the trey that tied it 80-80.

That's how they caught up, and then they almost broke it open in overtime when the UI's 12th steal shook Head for a breakaway and 90-84 spread.

But what will become known as the greatest game in Illini history, even surpassing the twin victories against Louisville and Syracuse in 1989, didn't end there. Junior Hassan Adams hauled Arizona within one and had the ball at the top of the circle with 10 seconds left. OK, take your hands from your eyes. You can look. Adams couldn't create anything against the rugged Williams and wound up missing badly a rushed shot at the end.

Weber's team, ranked No. 1 for 15 weeks, now has progressed as far in the tournament as any UI team in the past.

So often these dramatic March showdowns end the other way. It all began more than a half-century ago when great UI teams came up two points shy against Kentucky in 1951 and St. John's in 1952. Moving ahead three decades, Lou Henson's strong clubs lost by three to Utah in 1983 and to Kentucky in 1984, by two to Alabama in 1986, by one to Austin Peay in 1987 and, in a devastating rally, by three to Villanova in 1988. The history lesson includes a last-ditch two-pointer to Michigan in the 1989 Final Four and a two-point loss to Dayton in 1990.

All those heart-breakers in a day long past, and more bitter disappointments under Lon Kruger, Bill Self and Weber last season. But if former Illini teams deserved better, Saturday's Illini were blessed.

Arizona flat-out dominated Illinois on both ends for 38 minutes. Channing Frye ruled the lane with 24 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks, literally nullifying foul-troubled James Augustine. Williams and Brown struggled through long periods without scoring, Dee putting Illinois ahead 31-25 and then going nearly 24 minutes without a point. Lute Olson's basket-attacking offense ripped through the Illini defense for 21 point-blank baskets on dunks, lay-ins and tip-ins.

There wasn't the slightest indication that Arizona would let up, the Wildcats ruling even as the pregame story line, Salim Stoudamire, went 2 of 13 from the field. New York's Dick Weiss and other big-city scribes were poised to bury Illinois with their computers. They were already writing their leads. Illinois had lost. Illinois wasn't that good in the first place. Illinois hadn't defeated anybody worth note. Illinois couldn't handle a team with a quality big man. Illinois depends too heavily on three-pointers.

Well, they're in the Final Four. The body was temporarily flat-lining, and it came back to life. Check for breathing before the burial. You might make a mistake.

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