I've been to a lot of great sporting events, as a fan and in my newspaper career, but this one might be the best comeback I've seen. (Another that comes to mind is the 1973 hockey Final Four, before it was called the Frozen Four, in which Wisconsin, down 4-0, came back to defeat Cornell 6-5 in overtime at Boston Garden.)
Anyway, the Arizona-Illinois rebroadcast should should warm the hearts of Illini fans on a cold winter night.
Here's the deadline game story I filed from Allstate Arena that night. (By the way, I still have the alternate lead, the one in which Arizona wins, in my computer. It was a tight deadline.)
By Herb Gould
Maybe the real Assembly Hall has been louder than Assembly Hall North by Northwest. Maybe not.
What's certain is that in Allstate Arena, a teeming tenement of orange-clad fans hungry for a Final Four, Illinois made a comeback that was as good as it gets.
Down by eight with 1:15 left, Illinois scored 10 points in 36 seconds to force overtime. And then the Illini held off Arizona 90-89 to earn their first trip to the Final Four since 1989.
``What an unbelievable game,'' said Bruce Weber, who broke down and wept afterward. ``It seemed like we were dead, but our kids didn't quit. It was pretty much a blur. Our kids just had tremendous heart. My mother was looking down on me tonight.''
For Weber, whose mother, Dawn, passed away on the day Illinois began its amazing March journey at the Big Ten tournament, the emotions poured out.
When Illinois reached its low point at 75-60 with 4:04 to go, it looked like a point of no return. Even when the Illini cut the lead to 78-70 with 74 seconds left, it appeared that their dream of reaching Assembly Hall Southwest, St. Louis' Edward Jones Dome, was going to remain out of their grasp.
Then the Illini refused to lose.
``It was just meant to be,'' Dee Brown said. ``This is amazing, an unbelievable game. I'm just going to wake up [this morning] and feel happy that we can go to St. Louis and play another game.''
First Deron Williams cut it to 78-72 with a drive to the basket with 1:08 left.
After a pair of Arizona free throws, Luther Head took a pass from Williams and drained a desperate three to make the score 80-75 with 54 seconds left.
After that basket, Dee Brown got up on on Mustafa Shakur near midcourt and tipped the ball to Williams. He tossed it back to Brown, who slid in on a drive that closed the gap to 80-77 with 45 seconds to go.
After an Arizona turnover, Williams calmly drained a three that tied the game 80-80 with 38 seconds left.
The Wildcats had a couple more opportunities. But Illinois held.
In overtime, with more than 16,000 in the crowd of 16,957 seemingly wearing orange, Illinois finished it off.
Williams hit a three for an 83-80 lead. When Wildcats big man Channing Frye powered in twice to put Arizona on top 84-83, Williams dished to Roger Powell for an inside basket that gave Illinois an 85-84 lead.
Williams, who was voted the MVP of this Chicago Region final, then drilled a three for an 88-84 lead with 2:14 left. When Head stole the ball and went in for layup, Illinois was in command 90-84.
But not for long. Hassan Adams made a three-point play, then knocked in a putback to make the score 90-89 with 51 seconds left.
When Head's straining drive to the basket failed to drop, Arizona had the ball for one last chance. It came out of a timeout with 11.8 seconds, but Adams put up a 17-foot shot that never had a chance.
And Illinois, which has won seven straight tournament games, including three in winning the Big Ten tournament, was St. Louis bound.
``I'm tired. Man, I'm tired,'' said Williams who scored 14 of his 22 points after Illinois was down 75-60. ``But I feel great. This is the best feeling in the world. It took all we had to get this win.''
Head, who scored 10 of his 20 points after Illinois fell behind 75-60, joined Williams on the all-tournament team.
Williams also spearheaded the defense that held Wildcats star Salim Stoudamire to nine points on 2-for-13 shooting. The problem was, Illinois had a ton of trouble with Arizona center Channing Frye, who wound up with 24 points on 11-for-14 shooting. In the second half, they couldn't deal with Hassan Adams, who scored 17 of his 21 points after intermission.
Although Illinois was outshot, 52.5 percent to 45.1 percent and outrebounded 37-32, it survived with a school-record 16 three-point baskets (16 for 35, 45.7 percent). Arizona was 7 for 18 (38.9 percent) on threes.
``You can see why they're 36-1,'' said Arizona coach Lute Olson. ``They're not a team that's ever going to give up. They got interceptions on us annd they knocked down threes under the most extreme pressure. I thought Deron Williams was absolutely fabulous the entire game.''