Illini a win away from championship

Ed Thomson

Ed Thomson

By Lisa Koulias

ST. LOUIS – Illinois head coach Bruce Weber uses his whiteboard a lot. He likes to write all sorts of statistics and inspirational messages for his team to concentrate on.

Several weeks ago, he wrote April 4 on the board. Several weeks later, the team is playing on April 4, just like he planned.

In its 72-57 over No. 4 seeded Louisville in the Final Four, the No. 1 Illini advance to the national championship game – the first time in the school’s 100-year history.

Saturday’s win at the Edward-Jones Dome in St. Louis also tied a record for victories in a season. Illinois, which improved to 37-1 for the season, shares the single-season record with Duke (1986, 1989) and UNLV (1987).

But as the Illini keep setting records, they still have their eyes on the prize.

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“We feel good about what we did and what we accomplished,” said senior guard Luther Head. “But we don’t want it to end. I mean, whoever we have next, we want to go out and play hard against them so we can finish it off.”

The Illini got on top of the Cardinals right away, as Deron Williams and Head scored back-to-back three’s. The Illini went up by as many as six in the first half, but allowed Louisville to tie it at 22 with 7:01 left in the first. Illinois went into halftime up 31-28.

“They do an awesome job of using the clock, running their staggers, running their offense,” said Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. “They come off, get in the middle and find their big people for wide open. … We felt we kept them out of transition most of the time, which is good.”

Illinois came out of the second half firing, despite allowing Louisville to gain its only lead of the game at 18:27 in the second, up 33-31; the Illini shut down the Cardinals offensively.

“We got on track a little better offensively in the second half,” Weber said. “We got better ball movement, got some inside touches. Obviously Roger (Powell Jr.) making a couple shots made a difference. The ball is bouncing our way.”

Both Powell Jr. and Head finished with game-high 20 points, as the senior duo combined for 32 of Illinois’ 41 second-half points.

“Luther Head made some tough shots, Roger Powell made some tough shots,” said Louisville’s Larry O’Bannon. “We knew he had a good touch, but he came up and knocked about three in a row down at the top of the key and it really hurt us. They just play well, execute well.”

Williams, who finished with only five points, contributed nine assists and played a key role on Louisville’s top scorer Francisco Garcia. Williams, who shared duties with Head, kept Garcia to 2-of-10 shooting for four points. Coming into Saturday’s game, the junior forward averaged 16 points.

“Illinois was the better basketball team,” Pitino said. “They’re a great team – a three-point shot away from being without blemishes. They truly are a great team. I don’t know if they necessarily had the greatest talent I’ve seen from a Final Four, but they’re the best team I’ve seen in some time.”

Senior forward Ellis Myles led the Cardinals in scoring with 17 points. O’Bannon and Taquan Dean each contributed 12 points, as Louisville ends its season with a 33-5 record.

Despite the disappointment of finishing his season, Dean applauds the No.1 Illini.

“Without a doubt, this team can play,” Dean said. “Everybody can knock down shots. They play so well together. This was, by far, the toughest team we played all year. They’re just an all-around great team.”