Powell's 3, dunk help send Illini to final
ST. LOUIS As the clock drained on the greatest night of Reverend Roger's basketball career, he stuck an index finger in the air and stared up at the ceiling of the Edward Jones Dome.
"I wasn't doing No. 1," Roger Powell stated for the record. "I was pointing at the Lord. ... I said a couple 'Thank you, Jesus'es. "
The pious power forward was thanking his higher power for helping him hit a higher level of play the highest level he'd ever attained, at just the right time. The licensed minister, who has been known to work the pulpit on Sundays at Mt. Zion Full Gospel Tabernacle in his hometown of Joliet, scored 18 points in a heavenly second half.
Propelled by Powell, the Illinois express rolled right through Louisville 72-57. That's a Division I-record-tying 37 wins this season for the Illini. Next stop: the national championship game Monday night.
This just underscored how good Illinois is. America has been raving on its three guards all season for good reason and then this undersized (6-feet-6) power forward explodes out of the shadows to take over the Final Four.
Illinois' second-half offensive strategy could be described as follows: Praise the Lord and pass the ball to The Reverend.
After scoring two points and playing just five foul-plagued minutes in the first half, Powell went pyrotechnic. The senior made 3s, drove to the hoop, scored inside, got every kind break possible and produced the jaw-dropping play of the tournament to date: flying in to dunk his own missed three-pointer. The only place you see a guy dunking his own 3 is in video games, until Powell did it Saturday night.
"I just knew it was going to come off (the rim) like that," he said. "I don't know how, but I knew it."
Call it divine insight. Then call it a spectacular athletic play. But don't call it Powell's most important play of the night.
That came exactly 30 seconds earlier. Down three at halftime but seemingly hanging by a thread, the Cardinals came out and scored the first five points of the second half to take a 33-31 lead. The last two of those points were free throws by Larry O'Bannon. Standing along the lane, Louisville guard Taquan Dean clapped his hands, the look on his face all but shouting, "Here we come."
With momentum slipping, Illinois embarked upon a troubled offensive possession that seemed destined to end in a bad shot or a turnover. Finally, with the shot clock at :03, Powell found the ball in his hands at the top of the key. A guy who had made 17 3-pointers in 37 games put up a step-back 3, with a hand in his face.
No way, you figure. Then it ripped the net and ended Louisville's possession of the lead for the night. The Cards had it for all of 34 seconds.
"That was amazing, too," said guard Deron Williams, who shut down Francisco Garcia while dishing out nine assists and grabbing five rebounds himself. "That's not usually in Roger's repertoire, but he decided to bust that out."
Special as it gets.
That play kickstarted a Powell rampage, as he scored 12 of Illinois' first 14 points of the second half. Guard Luther Head took it from there, nailing four big 3s in an eight-minute span to put Louisville away.
But the game belonged to Powell. You knew it was his night when:
• He swished a longer 3 a few possessions later.
• He had a loose rebound that was batted by two players fall directly into his hands for a layup.
• He had a baseline jumper hit the side of the rim, bounce straight up in the air and splash through the net.
Not that Powell has always lived at the corner of Straight and Narrow. He didn't arrive in Champaign as a holy roller by any stretch.
"He's definitely different now," said fellow senior Nick Smith. "Every since he decided he wanted to be a minister.
"He used to be like the rest of us he liked to go out and enjoy the night life, so to speak. He definitely lived the party life his first couple years here."
"He's more quiet now," Smith said. "He stays in and reads a lot."
Favorite reading: the Bible, of course. Saturday night Powell was quoting scripture in the winning locker room, repeating his favorite verse: Phillippians 4:13.
"You can do all things through Christ, who gives you strength," Powell said with a broad smile.
He knows that the parishioners back at Mt. Zion were having a big time watching him Saturday night, and will have much to celebrate at services Sunday morning.
"They're going to be shouting, praising the Lord," Powell said. "I wish I could be there.
"They're my family, they watch every game. After service I get a lot of hugs and kisses, especially from the grandmothers."
Regardless of religious persuasion, everybody in orange would love to give Reverend Roger a hug and a kiss today. The pious power forward has powered them within 40 minutes of their first national title.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.