Tate: Familiar — sad — ending for Illini

Tate: Familiar — sad — ending for Illini

Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. — Anonymous

The United States was little more than three months into World War II when a young Illinois basketball team — Gene Vance, Andy Phillip and the Whiz Kids were sophomores — lost to Kentucky 46-44 in the 1942 Elite Eight in New Orleans.

The details of that finish are too fuzzy 71 years later. But it was close.

Nine years later, Don Sunderlage missed a last-ditch drive that would have tied Kentucky in a 76-74 defeat in the Final Four. That preceded another two-point shortfall against St. John’s in the Final Four of 1952.

These two-point devastations established a pattern that carries right up to the present.

Our ears are still ringing from another heart-pumping 63-59 setback at the hands of Miami’s Hurricanes on Sunday. And the UI has extended its hold on several NCAA tournament distinctions: (1) the largest fan base without a championship, (2) the greatest comeback in the last four minutes, the 2005 runners-up charging from a 75-60 deficit to beat Arizona in OT, 90-89, and (3) a series of the most heartbreaking losses in the history of the tournament.

Or at least it seems that way.  

By count, Illinois has entered 30 NCAA events and lost on 18 occasions by five points or less. On three occasions in the late-80s, strong Illini teams were eliminated by their opponents’ final shot.

Foul taste
The lasting picture is distraught Illini fans throwing their hands up and calling to the heavens about missed foul calls, traveling oversights, erratic out-of-bounds decisions and last-shot failures.

Carved in history is a 54-51 Elite Eight outcome at Kentucky (1984) where center Efrem Winters was barely able to play, that result causing the NCAA to pass a rule prohibiting tournament teams from playing at home.

The trend includes a chilling 83-81 Final Four loss to Michigan in 1989, the Illini having dominated Glen Rice & Co. twice previously.

And deep in our memories is 2005’s title-game loss to North Carolina (75-70) in which fouls limited star center James Augustine to nine minutes.

Something unusual always seems to happen. Something you could never anticipate. And it is a mind-boggling and freakish aspect of history that all these unrelated coaches and players from one school have seen so many late-game leads evaporate. Many are far worse than the current team’s inability to expand on Sunday’s narrow 54-52 advantage against Miami in the final 64 seconds.

Erratic Illini shooting always seems to creep in. The record shows that Illini standout Derek Harper went scoreless in a 57-52 regional loss to Kansas State in 1981. The ball wouldn’t fit in the Salt Lake City rims. That’s just one example.

On Sunday in Austin, the Illini received a putback by Nnanna Egwu but otherwise failed on six shots in the last 2:35. D.J. Richardson missed his last nine attempts. Furthermore, they were victims of a crucial missed call on an out-of-bounds deflection. What can you do?

If you believe in Black Magic, you’d be convinced the Illini are jinxed.

The 68-67 loss to Austin Peay in 1987 lives in infamy more than a quarter-century later. And the 66-61 collapse against Villanova a year later was devastating because several of the UI’s all-time greats couldn’t make free throws to maintain a clear lead.

Here are examples from just the past decade:

— 2003: Notre Dame went on a blistering 13-for-24 three-point tear while Illini star Brian Cook had an inexplicable 6-for-23 game on his favorite shots. This resulted in a 68-60 Round 2 upset that isn’t one of the 18 decided by five points or less. Also outside the Awful Eighteen: Back in 1994, Illinois led Georgetown 73-67 with 7:00 to go but fell 84-77 and, in 1995, they led Tulsa by 12 in the second half and by 62-61 at 1:07, only to tumble 68-62.

— 2006: At Round 2 in San Diego, the UI had Washington down 58-49 but could not score late and fell 67-64. Jamar Smith, entering the game as a 50 percent shooter on treys, went 0 for 5 from the arc.

— 2007: The Illini were in front 50-40 at 5:10 but knuckled their last eight shots against Virginia Tech, not to mention Brian Randle’s one-and-one free throw opportunity at :05. Tech won, 54-52.

The Illini’s overall NCAA tournament record is 40-31 (including consolation games in the past). Down through the years, they’ve won some thrillers — few top the 89-86 defeat of Syracuse to reach the 1989 Final Four — but their late-game disappointments have been far more frequent.

Sometimes the Illini needed glasses. And some of those refs must have forgotten theirs.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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JimOATSfan wrote on March 26, 2013 at 6:03 am

You're kind to the refs Loren. I still believe the games and outcomes are regularly controlled by what fouls ARE called, and what fouls ARE NOT called.

It happens too often, plus they refuse to make it easy to check a replay at ALL CRITICAL TIMES so nothing can reverse the usually-crappy decision.

Marketing, desperation to win something, entertaining the masses, etc probably all play a role in why it is happening at the college and pro levels.  It's really like there are dodo's in charge of the leagues.

Moonpie wrote on March 26, 2013 at 11:03 am

Fans are distraught and look to the heavens -- crotchety Oracle Tate just can't stop elbowing fans and starting a column 71 years into the past.

urbanaman wrote on March 26, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Yeah, good ol' Moses Sunshine comes along to make a disappointing situation even worse. You pontificating Prince of Prunes, how about sticking with the fact that we've got a first-year coach here who got our club just-this-close to a Sweet 16 over a team that was expected to trounce us.

The equivalent would be like someone saying to you: "Hey Methuselah, you're not looking too bad these days. O' course, the grim reaper could be waiting just outside the door..." 

optimator wrote on March 27, 2013 at 8:03 am

cowpie says what?

1 illinifan wrote on March 26, 2013 at 11:03 am

Agree jimOATSfan, you just did not mention the biggest reason, sports betting. Some refs rely on those cash payments, heavily. It only takes one ref to influence a game, so by no means are all the refs getting payments, some have ethics, character, etc. If it was ever revealed, you would be surprised as to who is taking payments though. Some calls can influence a game early in the game, it does not have to be late in the game. Also, some games just go the way that they want on their own, so no calls or influence are necessary. Sometimes it is not calls that are needed, can be stoppage of play at the right time, to swing momentum. They really have it down to a science now, from payments being hidden to training on ways to influence a game and get by with it. Think about it, refs are always ridiculed for calls, coaches cannot say anything without being fined, and this alone makes it easy let alone all the other ways. This obviously does not happen in all games either, just the games with a lot of money riding or they have had a lot of loses and want to make sure there is no more for that time period. Have not looked up the betting numbers on March Madness this year, but in the past it has been incredible. Think this does not happen? In gambling? Seriously? Money influences people in every facet of our life, good and bad. You read about someone influencing someone for money almost every day in the paper so this is not isolated to sports betting. This has been happening for a very long time, just more so now.

stumblefoot wrote on March 26, 2013 at 11:03 am

While I enjoy reading the writer, I don't care for this column.  First that I haven't enjoyed in a long time.  Why?  It feels like someone just opened a very old, old wound and poured salt directly into it.  It hurst and seems unnecessary

RAM wrote on March 26, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Stumblefoot has it right.  Just as the Illini basketball fortunes start pointing upward, Loren comes up with a column that digs up past disappoinments.  What big time program has not had its disappointments?  How about if we let the past lie and move on.

Illipud wrote on March 26, 2013 at 12:03 pm
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Because, RAM, the fix is still in, witness the devastating out-of-bounds call that went against the Illini in the Miami game.  If this is just bad officiating, why don't we get our share of questionable calls that favor us ?  Even if we get Alexander and/or Okafor, one official can bench him quickly with "phantom" foul calls ( like they did with Augustine in '85 title game ) and influence the outcome.  I've watched officials handcuff teams by calling ticky-tacky fouls on one team and let obvious fouls go on the other end............. the players get the "message" right away.  Somehow this needs to get exposed and investigated,  NCAA where are you ?  Your blathering about integrity in college sports rings very hollow !

JimOATSfan wrote on March 26, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Do an internet search on 'the act of 1871'.  It doesn't get any better when you learn how the us 'financial sector' sold us into financial slavery.  Jeepers how lame these people are.


jturner wrote on March 26, 2013 at 2:03 pm

I'm not going to beat up Loren for this column.  It reality, part of history that many of us witnessed (at least most of it) firsthand.  I think the official bashing is a little over the top.  I'm remember as fondly as anyone the great Arizona victory, but I would suggest that Lute and the AZ fans might have a different view of whether we have ever caught a break from the refs. Some pretty rough defense was played during that comeback. 

ERE wrote on March 26, 2013 at 5:03 pm
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Hey Loren-

A major part of the jinx is YOU. Please pack up and head to the old folks home. I mean really, Down-Lo, why a negative article today after you appeared to have come to your senses yesterday?? As a Harvard-trained neurologist, I can say conclusively that your squash is just not  right.

The Class of 2013, hats off to your TNTand  resiliency-you are a great inspiration and wish all 5 of you the VERY BEST! 

mlp94595 wrote on March 26, 2013 at 10:03 pm

The 2005 comeback against Arizona made up for the 2001 regional final, which was the worst officiated game I've ever seen.  That was the year Lute's wife died, so the sympathy was with him, and then Michigan State won earlier in the day.  So, if the Illini had won, there would have been two Big Ten and two ACC teams in the final four.  Arizona shot 56 free throws, six Illini players fouled out, and we ended the game playing 5 guards.  Even at that, we lost by only 6 points.  To add insult to injury, Bill Walton and Dick Enberg (Mr. Cheer the victors and partonize the losers) called the game, with Luke Walton playing for Arizona.

knxvlillini wrote on March 27, 2013 at 1:03 am

I'll admit my bias for the illini, but they do seem to get cheated at times.  I feel Tate's pain and frustration.


But to me USAToday 3/18 blurb about the Illini was pretty spot on: "The quick-triggered Illini had the third -most three- point attempts of any team in the country but finished tiedfor 242nd in three-point percentage."


So in the Miami game, the seniors combined for 6 of 24 shooting was it? That won't win many tournament  games even with the good defense they played. 

tntsher wrote on March 27, 2013 at 8:03 am

I agree with you knxvil, bad call at the end of the Miami game (we needed that possession BAD) BUT, that didn't cost us the game near as much as the poor shooting down the stretch. This team was always WAY short on assists, which usually lead to higher % shots.

But that said, while we are on the subject of officiating, I believe this is a perfect year for the ncaa to work on salutions to a growing problem, VERY POOR officiating throughout! The B1G should lead the way with this because officiating in the B1G this year was absolutely the worst I have ever seen in 50 years of watching B1G BB. I'm not crying foul over the call in the last game or just  the Illini games, but every game, all year, things have gotten out of control. VCU literally raped Michigan's Trey Burke the entire game last week (which made M's 20pt W even more impressive) and Louisville got by with aggrevated assault vs CSU. The Cardinals were credited with 10 steals, most of which involved body checks, arm slapping and shoving, sometimes a CSU ballhandler was knocked to the ground with no call. Officials let an agressive team get by with murder on a ballhandler bring the ball up the court and then call a PHANTOM foul almost everytime on a layup or drive to the basket. Post play has become let the star shove and grab all they can but always get the smaller guy for simply standing firm.

I think they should add a 4th official, the game has gotten faster with bigger players. And the grades that officials get need to be used in a way to improve their performance with penalties for  poor games, not just a missed call or 2 but an overall job "NOT" well done. Maybe the problem starts at the AAU level and if so that should be addressed too. The game is suffering from what gets allowed anymore. Aaron Craft is a fine defensive player, but he is also an example of the problem, as he gets by with murder in every game.

Something needs to be addressed and something needs FIXING!