One-point win sends basketball to St. Louis

By Lisa Koulias

ROSEMONT, Ill. – It’s been talked about all season – the March to the Arch.

And now it’s finally here.

With their 90-89 overtime win over Arizona in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, the Illini advance to St. Louis, where they will make their fifth Final Four appearance, the first since 1989.

And after a high-intensity, heart-stopping game like the one Saturday night, Illinois players and fans will need a week to regroup and catch their breath.

“This was simply awesome,” said Illinois forward Roger Powell Jr. “We knew we just had to keep fighting and we did it. It was a good, hard-fought game, an Elite Eight caliber game.”

With the All-State Arena decorated in orange, the Illini seemed to have everything in control, going into halftime up 38-36.

Deron Williams kept Arizona’s hot shooter, Salim Stoudamire, to 0-of-4 shooting in the first half.

“I thought Williams did a great job on him,” said Arizona head coach Lute Olson. “He made it difficult for him tonight.”

But in the second half, the Illini found themselves in an unfamiliar position – down 15 points with four minutes to play.

That’s when Illinois’ trio of guards decided to take things into their own hands and headed an amazing comeback that will not soon be forgotten.

“It was unbelievable; everyone just made plays at the right time,” Williams said.

With four minutes to play, the Illini went on a 20-5 scoring run, sending the game into overtime, where they held on to the momentum to beat the Wildcats.

“If you didn’t care who won, I don’t know that you could have asked for a better effort from a bunch of kids on both teams,” Olson said. “This game was played at a high level with unbelievable passion and intensity.”

While the Illini bigs were the talk in most of the Illinois postseason success, it was the guards – Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head – who regained their usual position in the spotlight.

Led by Williams with 22 points and 10 assists, the three combined for 57 points and 19 assists.

“I think everyone now sees why they (Illini) are 36-1,” Olson said. “They are not a team that is going to give up.”

Powell Jr. contributed 16 points, while the bench, which was scoreless in Thursday’s Sweet 16 game, added 13 points.

James Augustine, who entered Saturday’s game as Illinois’ leading scorer in the NCAA tournament, was held to four points.

“We knew we were just going to have to fight all game long,” said Illinois forward Jack Ingram.

Arizona finished with five players in double figures, led by senior center Channing Frye who finished with 24 points. Stoudamire was the only Wildcat starter not to finish in double-figures.

Arizona committed 17 turnovers, which resulted in 25 Illinois points. The Illini gave up 13 turnovers for 15 Arizona points.

“I think instead of looking at what was wrong with Arizona, I think you have to give those kids from Illinois a tremendous amount of credit,” Olson said. “A tremendous amount of praise and effort and the fact that they could hit the shots they needed to hit, and they could still dig in as hard as they had to play the whole game, without a lot of rest. They did a great job.”

The Illini have the week off until they travel to St. Louis for the Final Four, where they will meet Louisville (33-4). Louisville is also coming off an overtime win on Saturday, as it rallied from a 20-point deficit to beat West Virginia.

“A lot of coaches say that if you are going to win a national championship you have to win a close game, make a big shot, do something to have a chance,” Weber said. “Well we did it today, but Louisville did it also.”

“So we are just going to take one day at a time. Enjoy tonight, enjoy tomorrow and then start talking Monday about Louisville.”