Waiting for tonight

By Lisa Koulias

ST. LOUIS – At the start of the 2004-2005 basketball season, the Illini Nation was waiting in anticipation, curious to see how this year’s basketball team would fare.

As the wins stacked up and Illinois held the No. 1 ranking for 15 weeks of the season, the Illini and their fans knew that the 100th year of Illinois basketball was bound to be special.

Now it’s April 4, and the Illini will play in the top game in the country – the National Championship.

“I think it’s a match up that pretty much everybody wanted, everybody anticipated,” said Illinois’ Deron Williams. “It’s finally here. Now we get to play it out.”

“We’ll see (today) who the better team is; that is why you play a National Championship game.”

With a Big Ten Championship, a Big Ten Tournament Championship and now the school’s first-ever National Championship game appearance all highlighting this season, the No. 1 Illini will face off against No. 2 North Carolina in one of the most anticipated match ups of the year.

Tonight’s game, which starts at 8:21 p.m., is the first time since 1999 that two No.1 seeds will meet in the championship. It is also the first time in 30 years that the No. 1 team in the nation faced the No. 2 team.

“We have been the best two teams for most of the year,” said North Carolina’s David Noel. “This is the way the season should end up. The best team will win.”

All season, Illinois has been compared to North Carolina, saying Illinois is the best team, but North Carolina has the best talent.

“People have been overlooking us all year,” said Illinois James Augustine. “They are talented. Obviously, you look at their team; they have four, five, six pro prospects on their team. They’ll have a lottery pick coming off their bench. They’re obviously more talented. I think they’re athletic.”

“But when it comes down to the situation, it’s who’s the better team, whoever comes out and makes the least amount of mistakes and whoever comes out and plays the better basketball tomorrow is going to win.”

Tonight’s meeting will be the sixth between the two schools, where North Carolina holds a 3-2 edge over the Illini. Last season, No. 10 North Carolina beat No. 11 Illinois, 88-81, at Greensboro, N.C., in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Two years ago, No. 25 Illinois beat No. 12 North Carolina 92-65 in Champaign.

“When you’ve played North Carolina before, it’s pretty much their same team,” Augustine said. “They really haven’t had anybody graduate since my freshman year. It is good to play them. But on the other hand, they’ve seen us twice. I mean, it’s the same both ways.”

Illinois, with 37 all-time NCAA tournament wins, has the most wins ever of any team without a national championship. While the Illini are playing in the national championship game for the first time in school history, North Carolina is making its eighth appearance. The Tar Heels have three national titles, with their most recent coming in 1993.

“This would be a great championship for our school and the entire state,” said Illinois’ Luther Head. “We’ve played 100 years, and that has never happened. We want to leave our legacy with such a tremendous record and that’s what we hope to accomplish (tonight).”