Big Ten Wonk
Sunday, March 27, 2005
Illinois beat Arizona in OT 90-89 last night to advance to the Final Four in a game that within hours was already being called "the greatest comeback in tournament history"; a game that, if you've found your way to a blog about college basketball, thrilled you down to the deepest hoops-fan core of your being. This was Carlton Fisk-good. Immaculate Reception-good. Yes, Christian Laettner-good.

The Illini trailed 75-60 with four minutes left. A little more than three minutes later, off a steal of an inbounds pass, Deron Williams capped an incredible ending (eight Illinois points in 19 seconds) to an incredible run (20-5) with a three that tied the game at 80 with 38 seconds left. Allstate Arena exploded into delirium. Even the hitherto unfailingly detached and unflappable Jay Bilas forgot himself and became Dick Vitale for a moment, shouting "Ohhhh!" CBS showed Bill Murray in the stands looking like a nine-year-old kid (with his hands to his head in disbelief and joy). And Wonk knew then that the game was over. With the arena about to shake off its foundations, this blogger saw Arizona's Jawann McClellan gesturing angrily to a teammate--Wonk didn't know who McClellan was upset with or why (and still doesn't) but Wonk did know that the Wildcats had come unglued. And indeed, Illinois went on to the one-point win, reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1989.

What a game. What a game....

The beginning
Illinois came out of the gate moving the ball in their best December-February form and this Illini fan thought that a good omen: even when the shots weren't falling throughout a back-and-forth first half, the looks were there. But Wonk was nevertheless extremely impressed with Arizona and particularly with Salim Stoudamire. Yes, Stoudamire had an off night scoring (nine points, 2-for-13 from the field). But for those of us who haven't seen much of the Wildcat guard (even if we've been impressed with him on paper), Stoudamire was something of a revelation: he's not just a shooter. In Wonk's chicken scratches made during the game, your intrepid blogger finds this: "Stoudamire...surprisingly quick, penetrates...has that Deron Williams calm."

Ah, yes, those penetrations. The Illini interior D left something to be desired from the start, a condition that would fairly continue for the entire game. And here the numbers are deceiving. A glance at the box score would suggest the Wildcats were pounding it down low to Channing Frye all game (Frye's line: 24 points on 11-of-14 shooting). Not so. In fact when Arizona did run an isolation in the first half (with Frye, guarded by Roger Powell, in the paint and the other four Wildcats outside the arc), Wonk made a mental note that this was the first time this set had been run.

No, it wasn't post moves. It was drives. Lute Olson has (had) an athletic group that attacks the rim with ferocity. Hassan Adams (21 points, 9-of-13) and Frye, in particular, were lethal.

And yet....

Even in a closely-played first half, Illinois was showing the qualities that would win this game. With eight minutes left Dee Brown fed Powell for a fast-break dunk and it occurred to Wonk:

Illinois plays like a team that goes 11-deep.

Never mind the fact that they only go eight. Someone forgot to tell them the bench is thin because they hustle like a team that's coming at you in waves. On this particular fast-break, Powell started the play under the Arizona basket competing for the rebound, turned, ran the floor, and passed no fewer than four Wildcats to break ahead of the pack for the dunk. And Wonk smacked his fist and said "Yes!" This is what this team does. Illinois led 38-36 at the break.

Even so, things were about to get bleak.

Digging the hole
Maybe what started (or at least foreshadowed) the avalanche was Stoudamire's three at the 15:46 mark to make it 47-41. It was his only three of the game (he went 1-of-7) but, sweet mother of Steve Kerr, what a shot. If you have this game on tape or in digits, please watch this play so you know Wonk is not making this up: Stoudamire shot this ball from the outer fringes of the Blue Demon logo at center court. There was logo paint under his shoes as he launched the ball. Nothing but net on a shot where he'd simply brought the ball up court and fired away from 28 feet. (And this kind of unconscious shooting had Illini fans everywhere thinking: Notre Dame, 2003.)

Yes, Arizona played an incredible first 16 minutes of the second half--but they had a lot of help from Illinois. On the offensive end of the floor the Illini ball movement that Wonk had found to be such a good omen was long gone, replaced, strangely, by way too much dribbling. Suddenly the threes weren't falling. Arizona was getting the rebounds (including one impressive sequence where Stoudamire out-fought Illini big man Jack Ingram for a board). And when Channing Frye made a three with 6:02 left to push the lead to 70-58, it really did seem the stars had aligned for the Cats: Frye was 2-of-16 (.125) on threes this season before that shot.

A couple minutes later CBS did the dreaded pan shot of the Illinois bench: the one the director in the truck orders up when the game is effectively lost and the faces on the bench are long. The iconography of TV was telling us: game over.

Illinois had other thoughts....

For Frye's three, with six minutes left, was Arizona's last field goal in regulation....

The comeback
Illinois trails 75-60 with four minutes left. The crowd is subdued and the Wildcats are feeling comfortable: there's no real resistance to a rather indifferent screen set by Ingram, one that pops Williams open for a three that the crowd greets with a half-hearted cheer: 75-63.

Two free throws by 'Zona freshman McClellan (man, will he be tough): 77-63.

Luther Head runs off a double-screen by Ingram and Powell: and by "double-screen," Wonk means the two are standing literally shoulder-to-shoulder, forming a wall. Head pops free and hits the three. It's 77-66 and the crowd's becoming more interested.

Hassan Adams, harassed by Brown, loses his dribble out of bounds.

Brown grabs an offensive rebound (!) and puts it back: 77-68 with 2:43 left.

But it still looked like too little too late. And when McClellan (again, remember the name) made a spectacular play and blocked Powell's shot down low, the Cats walked the ball up with a nine point lead and 90 seconds to go. They felt they'd dodged the bullet. And some air went out of the crowd. Then....

Bounce pass intercepted by Head, lay-in: 77-70.

Powell fouls McClellan (and earns kudos from Jay Bilas for putting a freshman on the line in this situation) and the Arizona guard makes one of two: 78-70.

Deron Williams senses the Wildcats are in their no-foul mode. He's right: drives all the way to the basket, 78-72.

The Illini foul Mustafa Shakur, who makes both: 80-72. One minute to go and Illinois is about to score eight points in 19 seconds:

McClellan makes a little-noticed but huge (Wonk is tempted to say decisive) freshman mistake. He's guarding Head and when Williams penetrates to the free throw line and feeds his teammate, McClellan, who should be playing conservative with an eight-point lead, goes for the ball. It leaves Head wide open for a deep three: 80-75. Now the crowd is back and Dick Enberg and Bilas are suddenly sincere in their "don't go anywhere"s.

Stoudamire brings the ball to half-court and feeds Shakur, who's quickly caught between Brown and Williams. Brown goes for the ball with his left hand and pokes it clear; Williams picks it up and feeds Brown for the layup: 80-77. Arizona calls timeout with 45 seconds left. With an Illinois full-court press in place, the ensuing inbounds pass is a lob to Frye. But Ingram leaps and taps it to Head. Somehow, on a play that couldn't possibly have been scripted, Ingram has the presence of mind to move into screening position on the opposite wing from the ball. (This team is nothing if not seasoned.) Sure enough, Brown reverses the ball to Williams on the right wing. Williams fakes the shot, dribbles behind Ingram's screen, and lets fly....


Arizona had the last shot and it was ugly: McClellan from the left wing. It rimmed out and Dee Brown, strangely, tried to throw the ball long instead of calling timeout with about five seconds left. Brown's pass was tipped and Stoudamire actually had a shot but it was blocked by Head.

Overtime. Game. Final Four.

And when, at last, it was over, Bruce Weber could be seen crying. What a moment. What a coach--a symbol for his team: underappreciated, straight-to-the-point, tenacious, and lion-hearted. This coach and these players...well, they're guys you want in your foxhole.

BONUS look at the Illini playbook! In OT James Augustine had long since fouled out so Roger Powell and Williams ran a play that Williams usually runs with Augustine. Powell is out top and gives the ball to Williams on the right wing, fakes a screen for Williams, and then slips to the basket. It worked: Channing Frye was left in the dust and Powell recorded an ugly pseudo-dunk.

TOKEN salute to Arizona! The Wildcats are the best team Illinois has played, meaning not that they're better than Michigan State but that the 45 minutes that Arizona played last night was the finest performance, by far, turned in by an Illini opponent this year.

BONUS Illini personnel note! Warren Carter has apparently replaced Nick Smith in the Illinois rotation.

Good. Wonk wishes Smith, the lanky Floridian recruited by Lon Krueger, all the best. And this blogger has enjoyed Smith's often acerbic comments to the beat writers. But his defense was frequently indifferent and, speaking empirically, he hurt Illinois materially with every shot he took.

EXCLUSIVE Wonk pre-emptive historical parallel! Before Jim Nantz says it 112 times today (and, believe Wonk, he will) the most applicable precedent here (regional final, huge comeback, heavyweight opponent) is the 1998 regional final between Duke and eventual national champion Kentucky, where the Wildcats trailed by 17 before rallying for the win. Wonk remembers that game primarily as an instance where the now universal custom of calling timeouts to preserve possessions (when trapped or when falling out of bounds) absolutely killed the Blue Devils. They played the last minutes of that game without any timeouts left and were unable to stop the bleeding as Kentucky blew past them.

Links. Think Wonk was effusive in his praise of this game?....

William C. Rhoden of the New York Times says "people will remember this finish for decades to come." (Kudos to alert reader Smith S. for this link.)

Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post says this game is "way up on the short list of Greatest Comebacks Ever, way up on the short list of Greatest Games Ever." Wilbon closes: "And in the bedlam, everybody knew they had seen something not just rare, but admirable, the tournament at its best, March at its absolute Maddest. The band played, the tears flowed. Explanations be damned."

Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey says: "It was one of the greatest comebacks in the history of college basketball."

Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News suggests this just may have been "the greatest comeback in tournament history."

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti says: A team that looks like a champion carries on, having left us all awe-struck."

Copley News Service columnist Mike Nadel says it was "one of the best games any of us ever have seen or ever will see."

David Steele of the Baltimore Sun says Illinois "earned the respect of a skeptical nation, and leaped into the driver's seat for the national championship."

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell says this was "one of the greatest games ever played in college basketball history."

Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline says "people ought to start wondering if Illinois has the best three guards in college basketball in any season."

And oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper blogs: "Saturday night’s 90-89 overtime victory over Arizona ranks as the best college basketball game I’ve ever covered." (Tupper also says Bruce Weber moved Ingram into position on the key steal, "knowing Arizona would be throwing the ball to Channing Frye. Perfect anticipation." Indeed.) And in his dead-tree space this morning, Tupper calls Illinois "destiny's children." Well, we'll see....

Superlatives not just for pundits! Jack Ingram says: "It is just not the greatest game I have ever played in but the greatest game I have ever watched."

One down, two to go
Wonk says to Michigan State and Wisconsin: let's do this thing Big East 1985-style!

And to the fans of those teams, Wonk asks your indulgence. It's Easter and Wonk's off to spend time with the family. Your intrepid blogger will make it up to you tomorrow with analysis and links on what he trusts will be two more wins.

Wonk back!
Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me!

From the Wonk archives!
Somehow, in writing of Illinois' extraordinary victory, Wonk thought of words written almost two months ago by a Michigan State fan a few days after the Illini had beaten the Spartans in East Lansing....

I come to you as an Illini convert. Winning ugly is not only a skill, but an absolutely essential skill for champions, and the Illini have got it. My beloved Cleaves-era Spartans had it something fierce, and the upshot is this:

All Illini opponents know that regardless of the score with five minutes remaining, the Illini are almost certainly about to beat them.

True. True.


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