Finally-ly down to four

Troy Stanger

Troy Stanger

By Jeremy Pelzer

Most University students were away for spring break during Saturday’s NCAA Tournament win over Arizona, but those who remained joined Champaign-Urbana residents in celebrating the Illini men’s basketball team as they clinched their first Final Four berth in 16 years.

Many students, alumni and residents gathered in Campustown bars to watch the game. Bars grew quiet as Arizona surged ahead early in the second half, but silence soon gave way to shouts of joy as the Illini climbed out of a 15-point hole in the last four minutes of the second half, evening the score at 80 at the end of regulation. The Illini then clinched the game 90-89 in overtime.

“Most of us were resigned to the fate that the season was over,” said Derek Chan, a senior in LAS who watched the game at Joe’s Brewery, 706 S. Fifth St., in Champaign.

When the game ended, “There was a delayed reaction,” Chan said. “It took a good couple of seconds for people to realize what happened.”

Then, hugging and high-fiving ensued.

“It was surreal, like an out-of-body experience,” Chan said.

After the game, jubilant groups of fans walked down Green Street as passing cars honked. However, despite concern that celebratory riots could erupt, Champaign police made no celebration-related arrests Saturday night.

Only minutes after the game ended, dozens of people packed into Gameday Sports, 519 E. Green St., one of the first stores to sell Illinois Final Four shirts. Store employees carried boxes of newly printed orange shirts from the printer across the street, only to be mobbed by customers before they could set the merchandise down.

Cory Shumard, store manager, said he expected demand for Illini merchandise to remain high through this Saturday, when Illinois plays Louisville in the Final Four.

“This is going to be like football-day sales for seven days straight,” Shumard said. “It’s really the difference between a good year and a great year.”

Teri Johnson and her fianc‚ Ken Valentine each clutched a large pile of orange shirts with both hands as they waited in line. Johnson said she planned to send the shirts to friends and family in Champaign and Cleveland.

“Easter basket presents,” she explained.

When the team bus arrived at about 1:15 a.m. Sunday at the parking lot by Bielfeldt Athletic Center, hundreds of orange-clad fans braved the chilly weather to welcome the team home.

The crowd, holding signs and repeatedly shouting “I-L-L!” “I-N-I!” was made up mostly of Champaign-Urbana residents who came after hearing on the radio that the team would be dropped off at Bielfeldt. The Marching Illini played on as players ran along the guard fence slapping hands.

Steve Spencer and his daughter Whitney made the 45-minute drive down Interstate 74 from Bloomington, Ill., to greet the team.

“We said, ‘OK, we’re going,'” said Steve Spencer, who said he attended almost every Illini basketball game during the 1988-89 season – the last time the team reached the Final Four.

Dee Rardin, a freshman at Unity High School in Tolono, Ill., screamed with delight when forward Dee Brown slapped her hand as he ran by her. When asked what her favorite part of the night was, Rardin said, “getting touched by Dee Brown, because he’s gorgeous.”

Chelsea Davis, also a freshman at Unity, said her experience as a high school cheerleader helped acclimate her to the 36-degree temperatures Saturday night.

“This is awesome football weather,” Davis said.

Others weren’t as comfortable in the cold, however. After the game ended, Champaign resident Andrew Burroughs rushed out of his house to Bielfeldt so quickly that he didn’t change out of his shorts.

“I’m out here to congratulate the guys on a heck of a game,” said Burroughs, holding a blanket over his legs to keep warm.