Third time a charm for Illinois, Arizona

Physical game likely as top 2 seeds collide for berth in Final Four

NCAA Tournament


SAN ANTONIO - A fatigued Frank Williams and a sweaty Bill Self were walking off the court Friday night after Illinois rumbled past Kansas, 80-64, when Self, the Illini coach, reached across and patted Williams on the back. Then Self put his arm around Williams and whispered something to him. Self did not hug Williams, but he could have and should have.

Williams was the primary reason that top-seeded Illinois won and advanced to today's Midwest Regional final to play second-seeded Arizona, which stopped Mississippi, 66-56. Williams poured in 30 points and always seemed to make the critical plays when the Jayhawks crawled close enough to make things tense. Whether it was a long three-pointer, a twisting layup or a nifty steal, Williams continually halted the Kansas spurts and made the Jayhawks gasp.

"He's a phenomenal player," Self said. "He doesn't get the credit, for whatever reasons, on the national scene. But, to me, he's as good as there is out there because he can dominate a game and not score. There aren't very many players who can do that."

Simply surviving. That is what Arizona should consider the victory that vaulted the Wildcats past Mississippi. With Loren Woods scoring 16 points and Richard Jefferson adding 15, Arizona overcome a halftime deficit and the Rebels' smothering man-to-man defense. After a dunk by Woods 2 1/2 minutes into the second half, Arizona never trailed again.

"We're obviously happy to win," Coach Lute Olson said. "We've known we had the talent all along."

So the Illini (27-7) will oppose Arizona (26-7) for the third time this season for a chance to march into the Final Four. Expect the game to be played at a slow pace and expect it to be extremely physical, just like the first two pushing-and-shoving matches. Arizona defeated Illinois, 79-76, for Maui Invitational title on Nov. 22 in a game that featured 58 free-throw attempts. The Illini came back 25 days later and beat Arizona, 81-73, in Chicago in game that had 60 free throws. Self admitted that he scripted a plan that included physical play and excessive fouls against Kansas because the Illini had more depth and he wanted the Jayhawks to go deeper into their bench. Self is likely to do the same against Arizona.

"If you look at it on paper, we're not going to have to play a good game," Self said. "We're going to have to play a great game. I'm not saying that to give them more props or anything like that. I think they're a terrific team that's peaking at the right time, and I think we're terrific and we're peaking at the right time. Slugfest might not be a good word. I expect it to be a competitive, physical game and that's the way it should be if you play a game to go to the Final Four."

The boisterous Illinois fans in the orange T-shirts, orange sweatshirts and orange caps stood behind the Illini bench shouting and waving orange pompons. Every time something positive happened for the Illini, the fans stood. Actually, they stood for most of the night.

Behind Williams, Lucas Johnson (15 points) and a ferocious approach on defense and on the boards, the Illini won while making enough contact to please a linebacker coach. Nick Collison scored 23 for the Jayhawks, who led 2-0, 4-0 and 4-3 and then never led again, spending 37 minutes chasing a team that was smart enough and tough enough to protect the lead.

The Jayhawks had a chance to slice their deficit to five as Kirk Hinrich dribbled ahead for a possible breakaway layup in the second half, but Williams miraculously hustled in from behind and smacked the ball out of Hinrich's hands. Williams followed that with a jumper to inflate Illinois' lead to 47-38. Kenny Gregory scored on a dunk to reduce the spread to seven, but Williams drained another jumper for a 49-40 lead.

"He just kept making big play after big play," Self said.

Later, Kansas relaxed and crawled back to make it 54-49 after Collison scored six consecutive points. But Kansas could not climb closer than five. Collison, a 65 percent free-throw shooter who inexplicably missed five in a row at one point and finished 6-for-14, then hit three to cut the gap to 62-57. If only Collison had made all his free throws, Kansas coach Roy Williams probably thought.

Williams promptly made another three, and the Jayhawks were never closer than five again. No matter how uncomfortable the Jayhawks tried to make it for the Illini, Williams always saved them.

In the opening game, even though Arizona did not hit a three-pointer for the first time in a game this season and had their second-lowest scoring total, the Wildcats survived with strong defense and a solid shooting effort in the second half.

Now, an Arizona team that Woods said before the season could be "the greatest team ever" will see the mighty Williams and the Illini one more time.

"It's going to be a battle," Williams said. "I'm sure their guys are looking forward to it and I know we're looking forward to it."

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