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

From the vault: Illini stun Arizona, earn Final 4 berth

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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.

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This page contains a single entry by Herb Gould published on March 26, 2012 1:16 PM.

From the vault: No. 1 Georgetown survives No. 16 Princeton 50-49 was the previous entry in this blog.

Isaac Chew to join Illini staff from Mizzou: reports is the next entry in this blog.

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