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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.

     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.

 

 

An emotional Meyers Leonard stood up for Bruce Weber after Illinois got drilled at Ohio State Tuesday,.

        ``He deserves the best,'' Leonard told reporters in his first media session since Weber had let his hair down after Illinois' Purdue meltdown. ``We're going to see what happens with the rest of this season, but he's been incredible for all of us. He's not only a teacher and coach on the court, but off the court as well, trying to make us good young men.''


        In this dark period for Illinois, which has lost nine of its last 10 games, Weber might be teaching Leonard the most important lessons a coach can convey.


        Sometimes bad things happen in life. And you have to deal with them.


        Being a Big Ten basketball coach isn't a civil-service job. You can do everything the right way. But if you don't win enough games, your job will be at risk. At Illinois, 49-54 over the last six Big Ten seasons, with only one NCAA tournament win, is not enough wins.


        Where does that leave Leonard, a gifted 7-foot sophomore? Still immature in a lot of ways. But learning fast.


        College sports is a big business. For all of his troubles, Weber is likely to walk away with more buyout money ($3.9 million) than 90-something percent of Americans make in their lifetime. The hurt and disappointment will be there, but that's a pretty good balm.


        Leonard also will have an opportunity for a big payday this spring. If he wants, he can enter the NBA draft, where he'll have an opportunity to sign for millions.


        By many measures, he's not ready. He's not nearly as good as he's going to be if he continues to improve. And the transition to the cold-blooded world of the NBA will be difficult. He'll be drafted on potential. But even if he makes some initial money, developing quickly enough to keep an NBA job is an open question.


        In most cases, especially one like Leonard's, where the family can use the money, it's a no-brainer to turn pro. And I've been assuming all season that Leonard will not be at Illinois in the fall.


Lately, though, I've begun to wonder if that's the right move--and if he'll rethink moving on and decide to stay in Champaign another year.


        Having seen him weeping on the bench during Illinois' humiliating loss at Nebraska Saturday makes me think he might do himself a favor by staying in college another year. 
There's no room for crying in the even-keeled NBA. And another year at Illinois would help him develop the skills to harness his emotions and use them on the court. That would reduce his chances of becoming that frustrated in the future.


Much will depend on Illinois' next coach, of course. One of the new coach's first priorities will be to meet with Leonard and convince him to stay in school. If they connect, Leonard should think seriously about that.

In most cases, it's very self-serving for coaches to convince star athletes to stay in school.


In this case, it might be in Leonard's self-interest to spend another year in college.


He can improve his basketball skills, which will improve his chances of being productive in the NBA when he gets there. He can prepare himself emotionally for life in the pros, which is relentless and demanding as well as exciting and rewarding.


Will he buck the trend and stay in school? Some of that will depend on what Weber taught him about life off the basketball court.




It's beginning to feel a lot like football.

When Illinois basketball continued its freefall on Wednesday, losing for the seventh time in eight games Wednesday, the similarity to Illini football was eerie.

After a 6-0 start in which it rose to No. 16 in the nation, Ron Zook's squad lost its mojo as well as games. It was beaten in its final six games and Zook was shown the door by new athletic director Mike Thomas.

Since a 15-3 start in which it rose to No. 19 in the nation, Bruce Weber's hoopsters have clanked their way to a 16-10 record. As with football, the knowledge that they're playing for their coach's job has made them play tight, and made things worse.

They have gone from Big Ten championship dreams to the NCAA tournament bubble.

Even after their 67-62 loss to Purdue, the Illini can still entertain Big Dance hopes by winning at least three of their remaining five--at Nebraska and vs. Iowa and Michigan. A fourth win, at Ohio State or Wisconsin, and they could even uncross their fingers and toes.

The real issue surrounding Illinois basketball, though, is not whether it will make the NCAA tournament.

At this point, unless Illinois goes on an epic run, it would be a big surprise if Thomas doesn't fire Weber.

The embattled coach seemed to be seeing that handwriting on the wall after the Purdue loss, when he broadened his post-game remarks and began talking about shortcomings for this season, rather than just one game.

`` The sad thing about the whole thing,'' Weber said, ``and I guess it's my fault--instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coached not to lose all year. Instead of developing people, I was worried about winning. The last three years, all I did was worry about winning instead of developing a culture and a toughness. That's my fault. You're trying to please everyone instead of pleasing yourself. That's my fault, in hindsight.''

That sure sounds like a coach who senses that he might not be on the job much longer.

Weber drove home the point even further when he issued a clarification Thursday.

``I spoke out of frustration following another difficult loss,'' the coach said in a statement. ``I am disappointed in myself, as I said, for not developing a culture of toughness with our team up to this point in the season. The difference between winning and losing is toughness and having the will to win, and that is something we will continue to try to instill in our team.''

Weber went on to say, ``We have a lot to play for'' in the remaining games.

What's the clarification about? Sounds like a coach who knows his days are numbered,  and wants to make sure that he and his players make the most of them.

When I wrote a few weeks back that Weber might be in trouble, I mentioned that he has lamented not recruiting toughness. After the Purdue loss, he lamented not developing toughness.

I'm not sure you can instill toughness unless an inner will already is in place.

Deron Williams and Dee Brown oozed toughness as well as talent. Trent Meacham and Chester Frazier had the will to win. So do Sam Maniscalco and Tracy Abrams. With many others who have played for Weber--and Illini watchers know who they were--I don't know that anyone was going to bring out toughness.

Toughness starts with the type of player that's recruited.

But points like that are water under the bridge at this point.

Other things can be dissected. Weber never seemed interested in developing a deep bench. The recruiting can be second-guessed from here to Cairo. But that's all hindsight.

The bottom line now is, Illinois is 49-52 in Big Ten games the last six years. It has won one NCAA tournament game over that span. And the coach has lost the fan base.

That's a recipe for a pink slip when there's a new sheriff like Thomas in town.



Bruce Weber said the Cancun Challenge wasn't the field at Maui, but it wouldn't be easy to win there. He was right on both counts.
Illinois needed to rally back from a seven-point second half deficit, but it got the job done, beating Illinois State 63-59 late Wednesday to improve to 5-0.
While disappointed, ISU (3-2), which was led by forward Jackie Carmichael's 17 points, showed some potential that's encouraging for the rest of its season.
Redbirds guard Tyler Brown had a game-tying three-pointer wiped out with 29 seconds left because his heels were out of bounds as he took the shot. After an uncharacteristic turnover by Sam Maniscalco in the waning seconds, Brown's three-pointer bounced off the rim with Illinois leading 61-59.
Maniscalco, who led Illinois with 14 points, knocked down a three-pointer with 52 seconds left to give Illinois a 59-54 lead. Mansicalco, D.J. Richardson (13 points), Brandon Paul (12) and Meyers Leonard (10 points, eight rebounds) all played at least 33 minutes as Weber leaned on his starters again.
The basketball from Cancun will never be confused with what was going on at the same time in Maui, where former Illini coach Bill Self's Kansas Jayhawks were edged by Duke in the championship game.
But 5-0 is 5-0 for Illinois, which travels to Maryland on Tuesday and plays host to Gonzaga on Dec. 3 after hosting Chicago State on Sunday. The Terrapin and Zags' games will tell more.
One thing that's already becoming apparent: If Maniscalco, a clutch and gritty fifth-year senior, hadn't dropped out of the sky from Bradley, Illinois would have a much different looking team.



Some quick thoughts on Illinois' 70-61 victory over Richmond late Tuesday at the Cancun Challenge, a game in which Bruce Weber picked up his 300th victory. . .
If the trio of Meyers Leonard, Sam Maniscalco and D.J. Richardson can keep doing what they did when Illinois' schedule gets tougher, Weber will notch a lot more victories.
Leonard (22 points and 12 rebounds) did the necessary stuff around the basket as well as the outside things that give him a chance to be special. Richardson, who had 15 points in 38 minutes, also was active.
The biggest eye-opener, though, may have been Maniscalco, who had 19 points on 7-for-13 shooting in 29 minutes, all season highs for the senior transfer from Bradley. He not only steadied the Illini, who had nine turnovers after the 43 they'd piled up in their previous two games.
Maniscalco was an all-around offensive contributor who made his jumpers and cut well to the basket. A big question when the Illini take on Illinois State tonight in the Cancun Challenge championship (8:30 p.m CBS Sports Network) is how well Maniscalco's surgically repaired ankle holds up under the test of back-to-back games.
Interestingly, Weber, who's talking about going deep this season, stuck to seven players against the Spiders, who were a tricky Northwestern-like matchup. Richmond not only runs a Princeton offense; it does some different things on defense.
Joseph Bertrand (21 minutes) and Tracy Abrams (13) were the only reserves to play more than five minutes as Weber leaned heavily on four of his starting five--Richardson (38), Tyler Griffey (36), Leonard (35), Maniscalco (29) and Brandon Paul (19).

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