Illinois vs. Arizona: 10 years later

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Illinois vs. Arizona: 10 years later


It was truly a magical season: a 29-0 start, a No. 1 ranking for 15 straight weeks, a Big Ten championship and a Final Four appearance.

Illinois fans still want to talk about the 2004-05 Illini. Luther Head, Dee Brown, Deron Williams. 37-2, NCAA runner-up. Until the Illini win a national title — if they ever do — no team will be talked about throughout Central Illinois like the ’05 Illini.

One game from that season is talked about more than any other: Illinois vs. Arizona, NCAA regional final, winner headed to the Final Four in St. Louis.

Illini fans talk about the Illinois-Arizona game like Duke fans talk about the Laettner shot, like Indiana fans talk about Alford’s seven 3-pointers in ’87, like NC State fans talk about the Lorenzo Charles put-back dunk.

No, it wasn’t the championship game. Don’t bring up the championship game. It only makes fans bitter.

They want to talk about the regional final between their beloved Illini and the Arizona Wildcats. They want to talk about one of the greatest comebacks in NCAA history.

***

Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois, was cold. Forward James Augustine remembers warming up for practice prior to Illinois’ Sweet 16 matchup with UW-Milwaukee in sweats. It might have had to do with the ice rink under the court, but regardless, it was the coldest gym he ever remembers being in.

The arena, which opened in 1980, played host to the “Chicago regional” of the 2005 NCAA tournament, despite not technically being in Chicago. Why it was chosen over the newer and much larger United Center in Chicago really didn’t make sense even then.

But it didn’t matter to Illinois fans. What mattered was that they wouldn’t have to take a flight to see their team. Illinois’ first and second round games were played at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, followed by the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight in Rosemont, and if Illinois made it to the Final Four, it would be at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.

Rare is it that a team has three closer sites in the NCAA tournament, and even rarer does it happen in a year in which the team is talented enough to make it all the way.

Illinois fans took advantage of it. There were flocks of them in Indianapolis, and by the time the Sweet 16 matchup with UW-Milwaukee tipped off, Allstate Arena was covered in orange.

Illinois beat coach Bruce Pearl’s UW-Milwaukee team 77-63 on Thursday, March 24, in what was not an easy game. Immediately afterward, the focus turned to the Elite Eight. The team would play the winner of the Arizona-Oklahoma State matchup and watched part of the game at the arena but left for the hotel before it was over.

Third-seeded Arizona needed an off-balance 15-foot jumper from guard Salim Stoudamire to go through the net with 2.8 seconds left to get past the Cowboys. Oklahoma State — led by guard John Lucas III and forward Joey Graham — had been the slight favorite.

The Illinois-Arizona matchup pitted the Illini’s guard trio of Brown, Williams and Head against a formidable duo of Stoudamire and Hassan Adams, who averaged 18.4 and 12.7 points per game, respectively. The Wildcats, who had reached the AP top 10 numerous times during the season, also featured a 6-foot-11 Channing Frye in the paint.

Illinois head coach Bruce Weber didn’t watch the rest of the Arizona-Oklahoma State matchup until later that evening, after the game had already concluded. He and his staff broke down the tape that night at the hotel down the street and went to work putting together a gameplan.

***

The media frenzy surrounding the regional finals was nothing new for the Illini. Any team that spends 15 weeks at No. 1 in the country is bound to cause a raucous wherever it goes.

Illinois’ head manager that season, Matt McCumber, remembers the craziness of it all, especially the second half of the season.

“We had to get full-time security halfway through the year,” said McCumber, who now works as the director of student-athlete development for Weber at Kansas State. “If that’s what the Beatles felt like, we felt like we were the Beatles.”

By the end of the season, the team was entering hotels through the kitchen, avoiding lobbies.

But for the players, it was business as usual in Rosemont.

“Once you’re on the road, you’re doing the same things, you’re on a schedule,” Augustine said. “Practice, hang out, watch video, you’re not doing outside stuff when you’re on the road.”

Weber had the team focused on Arizona and stopping Stoudamire and Adams. But it was Friday night, the off day between the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, when an unexpected visitor showed up.

Bill Murray had been at the UW-Milwaukee game, not far behind the Illinois bench. Weber had bumped into Murray at the hotel and asked him to come talk to the team. After the team meal on Friday, Murray addressed the team.

Murray kept it light-hearted. He had a miniature basketball he tossed at players during his talk to keep them on their toes. Somebody asked him to do Carl Spackler, his character in Caddyshack, which he did.

At the same time, it was serious. Murray compared the grind of a basketball season to the grind of making a movie, how hard it is to stick through it. He talked about how important this team was to Illinois fans, how much making it to the Final Four would mean.

“It was crazy,” McCumber said. “It was the coaches, the players, the managers and Bill Murray. In my wildest dreams, I never thought that would happen.”

***

Memories fade over 10 years, but one thing Weber remembers is he didn’t get much sleep. It had been an emotional couple of weeks for Weber, who had lost his mother Dawn two weeks prior at the age of 81.

She passed away during Illinois’ quarterfinal game in the Big Ten tournament against Northwestern. And yet, Weber was back on the sidelines for the semifinal matchup the next day. Through the next few weeks, he pushed his personal emotions aside and focused on the task at hand.

“Over that four-week period, I didn’t get much sleep at all,” Weber said. “In the NCAA tournament, you’re surviving on fumes and adrenaline, just trying to get to the next day.”

Saturday, March 26 against Arizona in the Elite Eight was the biggest game of their lives. Allstate Arena was once again packed with orange, just a sliver of Arizona red in one corner.

Illinois started its usual five — Brown, Williams, Head, Augustine and forward Roger Powell. Lute Olsen started Stoudamire, Adams, Frye, guard Mustafa Shakur and forward Ivan Radenovic.

The first half was a back-and-forth affair. Illinois jumped out to a 6-0 lead, but Arizona countered with a 12-2 run. Through the first three games of the NCAA tournament, Illinois had trailed fewer than two minutes of play.

Augustine remembers that nothing came easy against Arizona.

“We had to work extra hard to get what we wanted,” Augustine said.

It was apparent from the early going that Frye was going to be a challenge. Augustine remembers him as one of the more muscular big men the Illini had faced all season.

“We did not expect (Frye) to play as well as he did,” Weber said. “He had a career night. We were more worried about the guard play.”

At halftime, Stoudamire hadn’t made a field goal, but Frye had 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting. Illinois led 38-36 behind 11 points from Brown and nine from Powell.

***

The second half was much of the same — nothing came easy. With 11:50 to play, Arizona led 53-50. Within the next five minutes of play, that lead was extended to double-digits.

For the first time all year, the Illini were out of sync. All season long, even in its lone loss, Illinois led for most of its games.

But as Arizona extended its lead, the team was positive during timeouts.

“Everybody was calm in the huddle,” said McCumber, the manager. “They settled me down, and the others who weren’t playing.”

Trailing by 11, Powell missed a three, to which CBS announcer Jay Bilas — as blunt as he is today — said, “Roger Powell is not a 3-point shooter.”

Stoudamire followed it with a pair of made free throws to extend Arizona’s lead to 73-60. On Illinois’ next possession, Brown mishandled a pass from Williams and dribbled it off his own foot out of bounds. Fighting for a rebound, Powell fouled Arizona’s Jawann McClellan with 4:04 to play. McClellan hit two free throws to go up 75-60.

The CBS cameras showed the Illinois bench, where players sat stoic, staring at the floor. The crowd was quiet.

A three from Williams sparked some life into the Illini. Augustine fouled out with 3:26 to play. After a media timeout, McClellan hit another pair of free throws. Then Head got a three to fall from the right wing. Adams turned it over and Brown capitalized seconds later with a put-back for two, at which point Arizona called timeout up 77-68 with 2:43 to play.

The slumbering crowd stirred.

With 1:20 left, Head stole a pass for a lay-in. 77-70. A few possessions later, Arizona extended the lead to 80-72 on two Shakur free throws.

“This is where really good teams salt away games at the free throw line,” Bilas remarked on the broadcast.

Illinois came down court, and Head hit a three with 0:54. 80-75.

Arizona broke Illinois’ press, but just over half court, Shakur had the ball slapped away by Brown. It fell to Williams, who threw a pass to a streaking Brown with the perfect amount of spin to land it in his teammates’ hands. Brown finished with a layup. 80-77. 45 seconds to play. Timeout Arizona.

“Oh my,” was all Bilas’ broadcasting partner Dick Enberg could say.

Arizona inbounded the ball with less than a minute to play. It was Ingram who tipped the pass from Stoudamire to Head. Head found Brown, who tossed a cross-court pass to Williams. Williams shot-faked, took one dribble left, and let a three fly.

The Allstate Arena crowd held its breath as Ingram tipped the pass and then exploded when Williams’ shot went through the net. 80-80.

“It was deafening,” Weber said.

Arizona took a timeout with 31.2 seconds to play. Stoudamire found McClellan for an open look, but it didn’t fall, landing in Brown’s hands. Brown reared to throw a long pass to Williams, who was wide open on the other end of the court, but the pass was deflected and fell to Stoudamire with time left.

From nowhere, Head flew in and blocked Stoudamire’s shot. A last ditch-heave from Adams was well off the mark.

Overtime. 

***

Overtime was back and forth the entire way. A three from Williams, a couple of twos from Frye. Williams found Powell for two on one possession, then hit another three himself on the next.

Arizona trailed 90-89 with 11.8 to play and the ball. The last play was disorganized. Adams heaved up a three from the top of the key that didn’t even find the rim.

The Arizona players fell to the floor, some hiding their heads under their jerseys.

The Illinois bench was on the court.

“I don’t remember what we were doing,” Augustine said. “I remember running on the court and I feel like I blacked out for a while. Then, we were cutting down the nets.”

“I hugged all the coaches,” Weber said. “Seeing those guys run out there, it was such a moment. You couldn’t even hear each other.”

The team cut down the nets, Weber taking the ladder last to chants of, “BRUUUUUUUCE.”

After the festivities, the team went back to the locker room and only had a few minutes before the press would swarm in. The room was silent when Weber walked in, and then exploded. Players jumped on him.

The coach in Weber was already thinking about the next week. The team would be on its way to St. Louis by Tuesday. The players needed to get back to Champaign. It took a while for things to wrap up at Allstate Arena. When the team left, Weber stayed behind. He had driven separately.

He finally had a chance to sit down and take a deep breath. Then he got a call. It was from the team bus. The team was driving down I-57, and there were fans in orange crowding every overpass, cheering as the bus went by below. They had heard there were hundreds assembling to greet them in Champaign.

Weber hopped in the car and sped south. He caught up to the team right before it arrived in Champaign. The bus pulled into town and drove to the Ubben basketball complex, where it practiced all season.

It was one or two in the morning, and the bus could barely get through the parking lot. People in orange were everywhere.

“It was pure madness,” Augustine said. “Everybody was there, it was such a happy moment. Those were the people that supported us the whole way.”

The celebration lasted an hour or two into the night before the team went back to get some rest.

And then it was on to the Final Four.

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@sean_hammond