Memory Lane: On the brink of a title

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: With the NCAA title being decided tonight, no better time to remember when Illinois was on the brink of glory.

Date: April 4, 2005

Headline: Visions of beauty

Cover: It's on our HQ Facebook page

By BRETT DAWSON

ST. LOUIS – Deron Williams has been here before, in his dreams.

He imagined this moment, playing in the national championship; cutting down the nets at the Final Four.

In his dreams, Williams wore baby blue.

"It''s kind of ironic because when I was a kid, I always wanted to play for North Carolina," said Williams, the Illinois point guard. "Now I''m playing against them for the national championship."

Indeed, Williams'' Illini meet the Tar Heels tonight at the Edward Jones Dome, playing for the first time in Illinois history for the NCAA basketball title.

It has been a long time coming.

Williams has waited since back in the day, when he was playing youth basketball for a coach – his mother, Denise Smith – who preached the importance of passing and playing defense.

Dee Brown just started dreaming.

"I really didn''t think about it in high school," Brown said. "(My freshman year) we just wanted to get into the NCAA tournament. We probably were too young to understand how big it really was. It was our sophomore year before we really started to believe in it."

Now, as juniors, Williams and Brown will try to complete a dream a century in the making.

It has taken 100 years, 16 coaches and 2,324 games. But tonight, Illinois basketball is on the cusp of its first national championship. To grab that piece of history, the Illini (37-1) will have to beat a team that''s no stranger to historic achievement.

North Carolina has more wins than all but one college basketball program. It has appeared in more Final Fours than any. And it enters tonight''s national title game blessed with as much talent as any team in college basketball.

The Tar Heels (32-4) are every bit Illinois'' equal.

And they, too, have been dreaming of tonight.

Their coach, Roy Williams, has been dreaming through 17 years of college head coaching, dreaming through four prior Final Four appearances and three NCAA title-game appearances. He hasn''t cut down the nets yet.

"We definitely want this for Coach Williams, but we also want this for ourselves, too," Carolina point guard Raymond Felton said. "This is something we''ve dreamed about since we stepped onto the North Carolina campus."

Tonight, fantasy and reality collide.

So do the two best teams in college basketball.

The game the Illini and Tar Heels have dreamed about their whole lives happens to be the one college hoop fans have clamored for all season. Illinois, ranked No. 1 most of the season, and Carolina, considered by most to be the nation''s most talented team, seemed on a collision course all year.

The Illini played along when asked if tonight''s matchup pits the nation''s most together team against its most talented, saying the Tar Heels have the superior roster by NBA standards. James Augustine and Deron Williams both pointed to Carolina freshman Marvin Williams as proof.

"He''s a lottery pick whenever he decides to come out," Deron Williams said. "And he''s the first guy off their bench."

But Carolina understandably bristled at the notion it''s a tangle between The Talent and The Team, forward Jawad Williams calling it "the dumb-est comment I''ve ever heard in mylife."

"I think my team is a team, and they are talented individuals, just like I think Illinois has a big-time team with very talented individuals," Roy Williams said. "It''s just that my team has been through some more difficult experiences in their four years."

The first point – that the Tar Heels and Illini both enter with as much togetherness as talent – Bruce Weber might concede. You get the sense that he''d beg to differ on the second.

The ride to the top has been rocky for Weber and his team, too.

The cohesion between coach and players was slow in coming after Weber replaced Bill Self before last season. He fought to earn his players'' trust and respect. In turn, they fought him at every turn.

"We all complained about his conditioning, but that was just us being babies," Deron Williams said. "I think eventually we figured out that everything he was doing was to make us better players. I think he''s done that, and it shows."

For Weber, 19 years an assistant to Gene Keady, tonight has been a distant dream, a goal that only a decade ago seemed unattainable. For the career assistant from Milwaukee, a Final Four game in St. Louis seemed as far off as some other galaxy.

Even last year, when his team struggled early and its fans sent letters ranging from merely impatient to indecent, Weber seemed a long way from winning Illinois'' first national championship.

Now he stands at its doorstep.

And it is not lost on Weber that the team he has taken to this threshold provides the best opportunity he has had – and for the foreseeable future, ever might have – to win college basketball''s grandest prize.

"I know you don''t have this opportunity, this group of kids (very often)," Weber said. "You know, there is a sense of urgency to it.

"I''ve just enjoyed the ride. We''ve had a great journey. It''s just been so much fun from Day 1 this season. We''re just hoping to finish the storybook season with a great ending."

It couldn''t have been scripted better.

Forget Talent vs. Team. This is Dream vs. Dream.

"I think it''s a matchup that pretty much everybody wanted," Deron Williams said. "It''s finally here. Now we get to play it out."

It''s played out in their minds before. Tonight, the Illini are living the dream.

"I grew up in Illinois and always knew I would be playing for the Illini," Illinois guard Luther Head said. "They''ve had other great players around here, but they never won the whole thing. This would be a great championship for our school and the entire state.

"We''ve played 100 years, and that''s never happened. We want to leave our legacy with such a tremendous record, and that''s what we hope to accomplish."

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