Chicago Sun-Times
With Sun-Times sports reporter Herb Gould

March 2012 Archives

Since it's the seventh anniversary of one of the greatest games in Illinois history, and since this year's Illini haven't bounced a ball in a while, thought you might be interested in a trip down Memory Lane.

Here's the deadline story I wrote when Illinois rallied to defeat Arizona on March 26, 2005 at Allstate Arena to earn a trip to the Final Four in St. Louis. I was thinking about trotting the story I was preparing in case the Illini lost. Hey, deadlines were tight and that game wasn't looking good. But they ``upgraded'' my computer recently and the old word-processing program we used to use no longer works.

No worries. This story has a better ending. . .  


Section: Sports
Date: 03/27/05
Page: 102
Headline:DEFYIN' ILLINI CLAW BACK TO STUN CATS // Improbable rally from 15 back leads to OT triumph, place in Final Four
Byline: Herb Gould\

         

Maybe the real Assembly Hall has been louder than Assembly Hall North-by-Northwest. Maybe not.

What's certain is that at 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 points 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.

They meet Louisville, a 93-85 winner over West Virginia in overtime, on Saturday.

What an unbelievable game," said coach 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 the day Illinois began its amazing March journey at the Big Ten tournament, the emotions poured out.

Illinois reached its low point at 75-60 with 4:04 to go, which looked like a point of no return. Even when the Illini cut the lead to 77-70 with 78 seconds left, it appeared 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 in regulation.

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, Brown got up on Mustafa Shakur near midcourt and tipped the ball to Williams. Williams 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 at 80 with 39 seconds left.

The Wildcats had a couple more opportunities. But Illinois held.

In overtime, with most of the crowd of 16,957 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 Regional final, then drilled a three for an 88-84 lead with 2:14 left. When Head stole the ball and went in for a layup, Illinois went up 90-84.

But not for long. Hassan Adams made a three-point play, then knocked in a put-back 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' 75-60 deficit, 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 Frye, who wound up with 24 points on 11-for-14 shooting. In the second half, the Illini couldn't deal with Adams, who scored 17 of his 21 points after intermission.

Although Illinois was outshot 52.5 percent to 45.1 and outrebounded 37-32, it survived with a school-record 16 three-pointers (16-for-35, 45.7 percent). Arizona was 7-for-18 (38.9 percent) on threes.

You can see why they're 36-1," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. They're not a team that's ever going to give up.

"They got interceptions on us, and they knocked down threes under the most extreme pressure. I thought Deron Williams was absolutely fabulous the entire game."

MARCH TO THE ARCH

*Record: 36-1.

*Note: This will be Illinois' fifth trip to the Final Four. The Illini, who never have won the national championship, have lost in the national semifinals in 1949, '51, '52 and '89.

*Quote: "This makes it that much more special, the way we won." --Deron Williams

*Next game: Saturday vs. Louisville, Ch. 2, 670-AM.

8-3 Bruce Weber's NCAA tournament record, including Sweet 16 trips in 2002 (with Southern Illinois) and 2004.

Syracuse's narrow escape from UNC-Asheville on Friday reminded me of another 1-16 close call I covered, back in 1989. I was mainly there to cover Notre Dame, which beat Vanderbilt in the 8-9 game.
But the guys in the office made room for the Hoyas' escape, which was even more dramatic than this Asheville game. One similarity: Princeton thought it caught the short end of the whistle, too. Even classy Pete Carril made it clear where he stood.
From the Sun-Times, March 18, 1989. . .
By Herb Gould
Sun-Times Staff
    PROVIDENCE, R.I. Top-seeded Georgetown got the scare of its tournament life Friday, but hung on to beatPrinceton 50-49 in the opening round of the NCAA East Regional.
    Alonzo Mourning, the Hoyas' 6-10 freshman center, sealed the deal by blocking 6-3 Princeton swingman Bob Scrabis' shot from the top of the key with three seconds left.
    "The game was in our hands. It was up to us. It's a dream you have your whole life, to knock off a No. 1 seed," said Scrabis, who led the
16th-seeded Tigers (19-8) with 15 points.
     "I thought I took a good shot. He just made a heck of a defensive play. He's so big. It's tough to shoot over him," Scrabis said of Mourning, who led the Hoyas (27-4) with 21 points and seven blocked shots.
     While eveybody else chuckled when Georgetown drew Princeton, Hoya coach John Thompson said he cursed. "It's like pulling root canal," he said of the Tigers' crisp, patient offense, which led to a surprising number of backdoor layups.
    Instrumental in opening the defense was the play of 6-7 sophomore center Kit Mueller, from Downers Grove South, who had eight assists.
    "You feel good, but it still hurts," said Matt Lapin, who had 12 points for Princeton.
    "Princeton is the worst team in the world to play in the tournament," Thompson said. "Once we got to a point where we were chasing them, their confidence level rose and we were getting a little edgy."
    When the Tigers left the court at halftime clutching a 29-21 lead, the capacity crowd of 12,106 at the Providence Civic Center gave them a standing ovation. Princeton received another ovation as it left the court a loser on the scoreboard, but a winner in effort.
    The Tigers shut out Big East player of the year Charles Smith in the first half, and held him to four points  all night.
    Princeton, which didn't trail for the first 30 minutes, hit the first basket of the second half, then braced asGeorgetown made an 18-4 run to take its first lead, 39-37, with 10 1/2 minutes to play.
    From there, the game seesawed until Mourning hit the front end of a one-and-one with 23 seconds left to put the Hoyas, who were held to a season low in scoring, ahead and set up Scrabis' last chance shot.
    "That last play of the game, we'll have to take that up with God, when we get there," said Princeton's Pete Carrill, who thought Scrabiswas fouled.
 
 



With Illinois' basketball potential, athletic director Mike Thomas can be in the hunt for the nation's most attractive candidates. Here are some possibilities to succeed Bruce Weber:

1. Shaka Smart, VCU: Last year's Final Four made him super-hot commodity.  Was an Akron assistant when Mike Thomas was AD there.

2. Brad Stevens, Butler: Two straight Final Fours establish his credentials, just two hours east of Champaign.

3. Scott Drew, Baylor: Former Valparaiso coach has built winner out of troubled program.

4. Anthony Grant, Alabama: Started VCU's rise before moving to Crimson Tide.

5. Chris Collins, Duke assistant: Former Glenbrook/Duke star is nation's most talked-about assistant.


Other potential candidates include Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, Detroit coach Ray McCallum and former New Mexico State coach/NBA guy Reggie Theus.


     Here's what Michigan State coach Tom Izzo had to say when asked Friday about the firing of his good friend, Bruce Weber: 

``I'm sick about it. I'm sick about it. And I'm sick about it -- and make sure you understand

the reason why. They beat us early in January and I beat Ohio State, and so I have three problems. Bruce is a friend of mine. He's been here since the Gene Keady days. He's done it the right way. He

doesn't cheat. He man's up to his own responsibilities. Incredible, incredible person. I've

recruited against him and lost and I've recruited against him and won, and hasn't changed things.

Number two, we have to understand that we blame kids for a lot of things. Kids have

changed. Now we have administrators that are pulling the rug under ourselves in the middle of

January when you're 16 and 6 or 7 or whatever it was, and we publicly talk about -- we'll make

decisions at the end of the year. I don't know what you guys think of kids because they haven't changed much, but if there's one place they've changed, they're a little more fragile. Not as many two-parent homes. Not as good a school systems that are holding kids accountable and demanding. And so now we put that on those poor kids? And then we're surprised that they lose 9 out of 10?

I don't know who's beaten me the worst, probably Bo, but second on that list -- and I'm

canonized as something some of the time. I think it was ridiculous the way that thing

was handled. And if I take abuse for that, I really don't care because I'm also the president of our

association. This isn't about a friendship. This is about a profession.

And whenever you're in an organization, whether it be yours, whether it be mine, or whether

it be a business one, the only way you can be successful is if, top to bottom, from the president to

the trainer, we're all on the same page, and that in five, six months you can determine something.

I feel bad for the Illini nation because somebody's -- somebody pulled the rug out from under them. I feel bad for those players that have been there that, in my estimation, weren't given a fair chance back about the middle of January, whenever that famous statement was made.

But if you look at that team from that statement, it went directly down. And I feel worse

for Bruce because we lost a good soldier. And yeah, friendship is some of it, but it's not all of it.

We lost a good coach. We got a coach that beat me and my team more often than not, and I just -- I

can't figure that out.

I can't figure out how you guys allow it. You guys are always figuring out the negatives of

things. I can't figure out how you guys allow it. And my wife and I shed a tear this morning

over it, and it was half for Bruce and half for my profession.

But unless there's things -- and I will publicly state this -- that I don't know, but when I heard those comments back in January, it made me sick and I said there's a problem.

And so I hope the administrators that made those statements have a good game plan, but you guys lost a good guy, we lost a good guy, and I think -- I just hope he gets another job. And I'm going to do everything in my power to help him. And I guess that's all I'll say because I'll probably put my foot in my mouth because if it was HBO, we could get at it right now and I'd really be fired up about it, because I just think -- I can't believe -- I can't believe nobody's looked at when those comments were made and where that team went.

I mean, this guy has won more games than anybody -- percentage than anybody that's been at the school. And he's done it the right way, and that's not easy to do. And it's not an easy job there. And when a big time recruit' s father, I think -- watch what I say here -- comes out and makes statements, I mean, you better have a good idea the guy you're dealing with.

And I know this. I've known Bruce Weber since the day I was a grad assistant. There's not a classier, better guy -- and I don't want to just hear he's a nice guy -- better coach. He's had some

things thrown at him, too, with injuries and guys leaving early and stuff like that.

So I'm sad, more sad for my profession than I am for Bruce because he's a man. I've seen him in his press conference. He'll man-up and he'll get it done.

So sorry I had to gun on a soapbox, but I'll leave it at that.''

 

CHAMPAIGN--Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas made it official Friday, firing Bruce Weber  less than 24 hours after the men's basketball team lost its opening game in the Big Ten tournament.

         ``It's difficult to make these decisions when you're talking about a quality person like Bruce Weber,'' Thomas said. ``However, when making decisions of this magnitude, there are many things that need to be considered, including the direction of the program in terms of wins and losses, competitiveness in the Big Ten and fan support.''

         Assistant coach Jerrance Howard will serve as interim coach until a new coach is hired, Thomas said. Howard will direct the team if it ends up playing in the NIT.

         Weber, who has three years remaining on his $1.5 million a year contract, will receive a buyout of $3.9 million, or $1.3 million a year.

         Weber leaves Illinois with a nine-year record of 201-101,  including Big Ten championships in 2004 and 2005, with a trip to the national championship game in 2005, when Illinois was 37-2.

         However,  the Illini (17-15, 6-12) lost 12 of their last 14 games this season, leaving them with a record of 50-56 in Big Ten play the last six years. During that time, Illinois missed the NCAA tournament three times,  and managed only one NCAA victory.

``It was really how we were trending,'' Thomas said. ``I looked at the total body of work. It's not the last three or four months, or the last month.  There's no doubt, early in coach Weber's tenure, we had great success. But in the last four or five years, we were running in place or maybe even digressed. It's important that we're playing at the highest level. We're about winning championships.''

         Weber is the third coach fired since November by Thomas, who was hired in August. Football coach Ron Zook ($2.6 million) and women's basketball coach Jolette Law ($620,000) also have been dismissed. Their combined buyouts are more than $7 million.

 

If Tim Beckman has his way, Illini fans are advised to be in their seats at 10:50 for 11 a.m. kickoffs and 2:20 p.m. for 2:30 kickoffs.

            The new new Illinois coach has instituted ``Illini Time'' as he prepares for his first round of spring practice, which begins today in Champaign.

            To underscore the importance of details, Beckman formed the All-in-One Club, in which players and coaches who qualify receive the preferred meal at quarterly banquets he plans.

            At the first meal, the winners received steak and eggs, and fancy pastry. The non-qualifiers ate porridge.

``It's Illini Time,'' Beckman said Tuesday of his rule that players be 10 minutes early. ``If your class starts at 9 and you weren't there at 8:50, if you were there at 8:52, sorry you're out. It's about being 100 percent involved in doing all you can do.''

Only 21 players and four coaches needed steak knives. The rest were good to go with spoons.

``I'm sure they weren't happy when they were eating their porridge and the other guys were eating home-made cinnamon buns,'' Beckman said, adding that he didn't even make the club. ``I missed a meeting. I was down in Naples, Fla., speaking to the alumni.''

* ALL JOBS OPEN: Incumbent quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will have to re-earn his starting job, Beckman said. So will every other returning starter.

            ``It's an open position,'' he said. ``Every position is open. He'll take the first snap because he's been the starter. But we're going to play whoever's the most consistent. And that's for every position.''

            Look for both Scheelhaase and backup Reilly O'Toole to take their share of snaps in practice and games. Beckman, who played two quarterbacks at Toledo last fall, already is on record as saying he likes a two-quarterback approach.

            * SPRING GAME: Illinois' spring game, which will be called the Blue and Orange game, will be a competitive contest, Beckman said. The new coach plans to divide the team with a draft and hand out a variety of trophies.

            ``We found some trophies, some that hadn't been given out since 1993,'' Beckman said. ``We're going to dust those off and give them out. Bring back some of the tradition of this football program.''

            The spring game is set for 2 p.m on April 14 at Memorial Stadium.

In what many will see as  a precursor to the situation of men's coach Bruce Weber, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas dismissed Jolette Law as the Illini's women's basketball coach on Friday, one day after it completed its season with a loss in the Big Ten women's tournament.

``Jolette worked extremely hard, but I feel the program needs new leadership for us to compete for championships,'' Thomas said. ``We wish Jolette and her staff nothing but the best. We'll begin a national search immediately to locate the very best coach for the Fighting Illini.''

Thomas, who came to Illinois from Cincinnati in August, has made a big impact quickly. In December, he fired football coach Ron Zook, saying he expects Illinois to compete for Big Ten championships. Thomas is expected to fire Weber after the men's team wraps up its season.

 

The Illini were 69-93 in Law's five seasons as head coach, including 11-19 this season. Illinois was 27-59 in Big Ten play under Law. Its highest conference finish was eighth place in 2009.

Law, who has two years remaining on her contract, will receive a buyout of $620,000.

``I've found great joy in coaching, teaching and guiding a group of remarkable young women,'' Law said. ``We have laid a good foundation for great things to happen in the near future. I wish nothing but the best for Mr. Thomas, the program, the university and my student-athletes.''


 

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