Seniors lead second-half surge

By Lisa Koulias

ST. LOUIS – From the beginning of the season, Bruce Weber said Illinois’ seniors were what was going to predict how good the team would be.

In Saturday’s Final Four win over Louisville, each of the four seniors made their own impact in the game.

“I said a way long time ago, our juniors are great, but we are no better than our seniors,” Weber said. “Our seniors will determine how good we are. I think they stood up big tonight and made a difference, and they got us to the championship.”

Guard Luther Head and forward Roger Powell Jr. were the deciding factors in Saturday’s game, as each contributed 20 points and led Illinois in its scoring rampage in the second half.

Coming out of halftime up 31-28, Powell Jr. and Head combined for 32 of Illinois’ 41 second-half points as the Illini shot 62.5 percent from the field versus their 37.5 first-half percentage.

“Roger Powell, he just caught fire in the second half,” said Louisville forward Ellis Myles. “That really was the difference in the game. I think when he caught fire, Luther Head caught fire.”

Powell Jr. scored Illinois’ first nine points of the second half. He first nailed a three-pointer at 17:53 to play and followed with an explosive dunk off his own missed three-pointer at 17:23.

“Roger was great,” said Illinois guard Deron Williams. “He was a big part of our offense. In the second half, he just stepped up there and took over.”

“Our seniors made the difference. They took over the game for us. There was no way they were going to leave school with a bad taste in their mouths.”

Senior forwards Jack Ingram and Nick Smith contributed 13 points off the bench, as the seniors had 53 of Illinois’ 72 points.

“It’s one of those things that you don’t want to see end,” Ingram said. “You don’t want to lose. So you go out and play hard. You have to make plays. Tonight our veteran team made the plays.”

Sitting aside

All season, junior forward Marcus Arnold has had to watch from afar as his team dominates on the court.

Because of NCAA transfer rules, Arnold is not allowed to dress or travel with the team. In Saturday’s win over Louisville, Arnold sat in the stands and cheered for his team.

“It’s kind of hard, but I am still enjoying myself,” Arnold said. “I still feel part of the team even though I’m not on the floor with them.”

Popular shoot around

According to estimates by NCAA staff, the approximate crowd at Friday’s Final Four Open Practice was one of the largest in NCAA Tournament history. Approximately 31,500 were estimated to have attended.

Exact figures for previous-year Final Four Open Practices were not available.

Many estimated that Illinois had the largest crowd.

“I saw a lot of orange and blue out there,” said Louisville’s Myles. “It seemed like they brought everybody with them.”

Playing the odds

“I believe if we played this team 10 times, they’d beat us eight or nine out of the 10. They’re very, very good, very talented.”

– Louisville coach Rick Pitino on the No. 1 Illini