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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.