Illini, back from dead, continue bus tour to St. Louis

After a comeback for the ages, a postgame T-shirt said it all. Illinois just had "the will to win."

Originally Published: March 26, 2005
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN The Magazine

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- And then, as Illinois honk and good-luck mascot Bill Murray once said in "Stripes," depression set in.

This time -- and a dazed Illini coach Bruce Weber still isn't sure why he's headed to St. Louis and the Final Four -- it is Arizona taking the next flight home, courtesy of their U of I travel agents and, quite simply, a comeback for the ages.

Illinois' march to the arch was made possible Saturday evening by a 90-89 overtime win that belongs in the same team photo as Duke's NCAA Regional final victory against Kentucky 13 years ago. Sure, it lacked a Christian Laettner turnaround jumper at the buzzer, but not much else.

Down 15 points with 4:04 remaining and eight with 1:03 left in regulation, No. 1 Illinois stunned Arizona, Weber, anybody with a CBS blue blazer, and an orange-clad Allstate Arena crowd that will need to be fitted for Miracle Ears after this one.

First the Illini tied the score with 39 seconds remaining, then they survived two semi-desperation 3-pointers by the Wildcats in the waning seconds, then they squeezed ahead in OT, only to sweat out yet another, albeit odd, last-second trey attempt by -- huh? -- Hassan Adams.

"A miracle," said Illini guard Dee Brown.

Dee Brown
Win two more, Dee, and you will truly be No. 1.

"My body is just shaking right now," said Illini forward James Augustine.

"I think it's a game that will be shown many, many times," said Weber.

Not in the greater Tucson area, it won't. The Wildcats looked like they needed to be treated for shock after this one. One minute they're up 15 and rehearsing their net-cutting technique. The next minute(s), they're dabbing tears from their eyes.

"You look at it now," said U of A's Lute Olson, who has spent 32 seasons on D-I sidelines, "[and] there are a lot of things that are going to force a lot of sleepless nights for everyone."

Sleepless Night Exhibits A thru Z is Olson's choice of a final play. It probably sounded good in the huddle: get the ball to forward Hassan Adams, a slasher who had already scored 21 points, or pop the ball in to center Channing Frye, who had already converted 11-of-14 field goals against the Illini. If Frye was covered, Adams could squirm toward the basket and either make the shot, get fouled, or both.

Oh, wait. He also could get stuck on the perimeter too long by Illinois' Deron Williams, fail to make his drive to the hoop, and then force up a no-chance 3-pointer as time, and the Wildcats, expired. And that's exactly what happened.

What didn't happen was All-America guard Salim Stoudamire touching the ball on Arizona's most important possession of the season. Who cares if Stoudamire couldn't hit the side of the Sears Tower Saturday night (2-of-13 from the field, 1-of-7 from the land of treys, zero field goals in the first half)?

This is the same guy who beat Oklahoma State on a last-second shot to advance to the regional final, the same guy who sank game-winners two other times during the regular season. Now he doesn't even get an attempt at crunch time?

That's like Gene Hackman not letting little Jimmy Chitwood take the final shot in "Hoosiers."

"Time ran down and I had to put it up," said Adams.

The truth is this wasn't an Arizona choke job, as much as it was an inspired effort by an Illinois team playing as if it would have to walk back to Champaign if it lost. Instead, the Illini Charter Bus Tour across the Chicago Regional gets to make another refueling stop.

Your Illinois heroes are many: Williams, who put the glove on Stoudamire for most of the night, led U of I with 22 points (5-of-9 3s), added 10 assists and played 44 of the 45 minutes; Luther Head, playing with a tender right hammy, had 20 points, along with all sorts of key three-pointers and steals; Brown had 15 points and three steals; Ingram gave 28 quality minutes and made a vital steal on a late Arizona inbounds play; Weber, only weeks removed from the death of his mother, overcame the flu and cold season (as did the rest of his coaching staff).

"[Our] doc's given us more shots in our butts than all the players," Weber said.

Williams was named the regional's most outstanding player. He finished off Saturday's game while battling cramps in his legs during the final few minutes. In fact, Williams asked not to guard Stoudamire on Arizona's final possession due to the knots in his calves from the cramps. So Weber stuck him on Adams, and we know what happened there.

"I couldn't move," said Williams, who spent the immediate postgame moments on the bench sucking down cups of water and sports drinks. Later, he gingerly climbed up a metal ladder to cut away two pieces of net.

Illinois capped off the first-ever day with two Elite Eight overtime games by earning its first Final Four appearance since 1989 and only its second since 1952. Afterward, Weber cried, Murray held up four fingers and wiped his brow in the exaggerated "Whew!" motion. Illini players donned the usual Final Four T-shirt and hat collection.

But one Illinois player -- I couldn't see his face -- wore an Illini-issued T-shirt that featured the message of the night. On the back of the shirt, in black lettering, it read, "The Will To Win."

Consider it a collector's item.

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His book "Cubs Nation: 162 Games. 162 Stories. 1 Addiction." will be released by Doubleday on April 12, but can be preordered now by clicking here.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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