EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: Illinois is headed to its third Maui Invitational. It's first trip — under Bill Self in 2000 — finished with a narrow loss to No. 1 Arizona.
Headline: Illini show they belong
Date: Nov. 23, 2000
By JIM ROSSOW
LAHAINA, Hawaii – They didn't win their first Maui Invitational.
But in the process of coming mighty close, the Illini discovered the gap between themselves and the country's No. 1 team isn't as wide as some people expected. The turkey and stuffing on today's plate are farther apart.
"We took the No. 1 team in the country," UI forward Damir Krupalija said. "We don't have to prove ourselves to anyone."
Arizona won its first Maui title, and Illinois convinced itself it can play with anyone, an unlikely comeback falling a three-pointer short in a 79-76 thriller Wednesday in a sweltering Lahaina Civic Center. Not until Sergio McClain's inbounds pass with 1.2 seconds left was blocked could Arizona celebrate, something it considered doing with a 12-point lead with 1:39 left (and with a 15-point lead with 2:52 to go).
"Were we down by 15?" UI coach Bill Self asked. "It was an amazing comeback."
The best, most of the Illini later admitted, they'd ever been a part of.
"I knew that Illinois was going to come back and fight hard. They're just that type of team," Arizona's Eugene Edgerson said. "Just as we refused to lose, so did they."
Frank Williams, his energy sapped by the best three-game stretch of his Illini career, unearthed one more burst. The all-tournament choice – Arizona's Michael Wright was the MVP – shot and passed Illinois back into reach, his offensive rebound basket following his own missed shot making it 77-76 with 12 seconds left.
Jason Gardner was fouled, Illinois called timeout and Lucas Johnson urged a loud group of UI fans to raise it a decibel. Gardner, another all-tournament choice, quieted the crowd with two free throws.
"We put the wrong guy on the free throw line," Self said.
The Illini got the ball to Cory Bradford, whose baseline three-pointer was blocked out of bounds by Luke Walton. Gilbert Arenas then stole McClain's pass.
"It was good to see us come back the way we did," Self said. "And it's good to leave here knowing the No. 1 team in the country had us down by 15 and we fought back and had a shot to tie."
Williams showed more Hawaiian punch, finishing with 27 points, including 13 in the game-ending spree. The sophomore and Sean Harrington sparked the comeback, the UI using a smaller lineup to track down the Wildcats.
"We made some hard shots," Self said. "Frank made some shots, Sean knocked some down. During that stretch, I thought we were a better team."
Better than No. 1 for a stretch.
"I never doubted that we could come back," said Harrington, who finished with a career-high 15 points. "We had a smaller and quicker lineup out there, and it was working."
Harrington's last of five three-pointers cut Arizona's lead to 75-74 with 25 seconds left. Wright, who finished with 16 points and nine rebounds, then cashed in two clutch free throws before Williams' putback.
Williams finished much stronger than he started, leaving Maui as the tournament's leading scorer.
"Frank is one of the best guards in America," Self said. "I though he competed and played to the end. So did the rest of the team, for that matter."
The eighth-ranked Illini were trying to buck several trends. They came in with a 1-17 record against No. 1 teams. They hadn't beaten top-10 teams back-to-back since 1989. And they were trying to finish off a tournament run, something they failed to do at the last two Big Ten weekends in Chicago.
One more minute ...
"We get to play these guys in a couple weeks (Dec. 16)," Krupalija said. "That's good for us. Hopefully we can show what we've learned."
Self learned Krupalija finally can contribute. And Harrington can make clutch shots. And the Illini can get by without Bradford on target (1 of 8 with a three-pointer in his team-record 68th consecutive game).
"I'm really proud of them," Self said. "I think we can draw from this experience for a long time."
If they ever rest. The players were free to roam Wednesday night, and Self called off today's practice. Consider it time off for good behavior.
Facing a top-ranked team for the first time since a 1993 loss to Indiana, the Illini showed few nerves.
Arizona opened the second half with a 9-2 run to open a 49-40 lead, forcing the UI to play catch-up the rest of the way. Arizona helped by fouling. Justin Wessel collected his fifth at the midway mark, and Edgerson picked up No. 4 soon afterward.
Illinois got within 55-50 on two Marcus Griffin free throws (Griffin was the UI's other all-tournament pick). Then Arizona flexed its top-ranked muscles, going on a 7-0 run highlighted by two Arenas layups, a three-pointer by Richard Jefferson and an offensive foul call on Williams.
Before the game, UI assistant coach Rob Judson tried to rile the players by reminding them of Lute Olson's Iowa background. ("A lot of black and gold there," said Judson, whose late jumper once beat Olson and the Hawkeyes in an Assembly Hall game.)
But Illini came out slow for the third consecutive game in Maui, McClain picking up two fouls in the first 3:13 and the Wildcats racing to an 8-3 lead. Griffin also left with two fouls at the 14:30 mark.
But reserves Krupalija and Harrington helped keep things close, the UI creeping within a point twice, the last at 21-20 on a Williams drive. Harrington later buried consecutive three-pointers – the last coming on a designed play – to force a 31-31 tie.
Arizona answered with an 8-0 before Krupalija responded. First, he scored off a nifty Harrington pass. Then, with seconds left in the half, he stole Walton's lob and beat him to the other end for a stuff that was heard in Honolulu, making it 39-38.
That the UI's bench contributed – 18 points, six assists in the first half – was not surprising considering its play in the first three games.