With all overdue respect, it's time to finally recognize Illini

March 27, 2005|By David Steele

ROSEMONT, Ill. - Most of the nearly 17,000 orange-clad fans inside Allstate Arena never gave up on the No. 1-ranked team in America, but you have to think the rest of America had. If the word "frauds" hadn't already escaped the lips of millions watching Arizona slowly pull away from Illinois, viewers knew that they'd be able to say it in only four more minutes.

Yet in the blink of an eye, the flash of a white jersey, the flick of an orange-banded wrist, Illinois had restored its reputation and probably convinced a lot of fans for good. It sounds preposterous, but the Illini might have been the least-heralded, least-respected 35-1 team ever.

But now, at 36-1, when they could easily have been the team with sunken heads and teary, red-rimmed eyes, the team on its way home in shock and dismay, who would be crazy enough to pick against them at the Final Four next weekend?

Everybody has learned the lesson now, and Louisville had better learn it as well, even in the wake of its own wild comeback earlier in the day: Count out Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown at your own risk.

As Brown said in the on-court delirium, the hugging and dancing and shirt-popping and net-cutting, "It was just meant to be." Sure, with those three on the floor, how could it not be?

Williams, Head and Brown make up the best backcourt in the land, NBA included, and against the toughest competition they'd faced all year, much less all tournament, they managed to rise to another level. They had shut down the best shooter in the country, the hero of the Chicago Regional semifinal victory that set up this showdown - and they were still down by 15 points with four minutes to go.

It was as if the Illinois trio took it personally.

In nine of the most frantic minutes ever witnessed in a college basketball game, the Illini outscored Arizona 30-14, and Williams, Head and Brown scored 28 of those points. And, by the way, held Arizona to those 14. A flurry of steals, a barrage of three-pointers, a constant swarm up and down the court, all while knowing that time was running out on their miracle of a season.

No wonder the first thing Williams said in the post-game news conference was, "I'm tired."

He earned his exhaustion. He looked terrible, half-tentative and half-overeager, throughout the first half, when he committed five ugly turnovers. The Jason Kidd comparisons made little sense then. But when he scored 11 of his 22 points in those final nine minutes, the comparison seemed adequate.

More importantly, on that last possession, beginning with 11.8 seconds left, when Hassan Adams stayed at the top of the circle and looked and looked, then forced up a too-little, too-late, too-long three-pointer at the buzzer - Adams was looking for Salim Stoudamire. He couldn't get it to him, because Stoudamire was being blanketed by ... Deron Williams.

"The last thing I told them, was, `We're not gonna let that little guy beat us,'" said coach Bruce Weber, speaking of the last timeout before the final possession.

That little guy didn't come close. The day before, Lute Olson made a pre-emptive strike with a lengthy rant about how overlooked and unappreciated Stoudamire was as a shooter, and how West Coast guards get short-handed on publicity in favor of guards from other regions.

Olson should've held his tongue. Stoudamire's final college game was a nightmare: nine points, 2-for-13 shooting, no baskets in the first half, none after the 15-minute mark of the second.

As it turns out, the Illinois guards were the ones teaching the nation a lesson. That was Head rising up on a sore hamstring and blocking a Stoudamire shot at the end of regulation, and knocking down two three-pointers and picking off a cross-court pass for a layup to kick-start the comeback, and hitting a three-pointer late in overtime for what proved to be the winning points.

Brown, meanwhile, just seemed to be everywhere, even when his jumper abandoned him for long stretches.

Together, they weathered the harshest storm of Illinois' season, literally. Until yesterday, they had never trailed in a game by double digits, and in the tournament, they had trailed, by any margin, for only 1 minute, 25 seconds. Of course, this happened, respectively, in a watered-down Big Ten and against teams seeded 16th, ninth and 12th. Arizona was the deepest, most versatile, most dangerous team Illinois had faced, by far. For 36 minutes, the Wildcats played that way.

It just wasn't long enough.

By game's end, it was tempting to apply the "fraud" label to Arizona - or "choker." But that would be demeaning to Illinois and its three-headed backcourt, which reached out and stole a game, earned the respect of a skeptical nation, and leaped into the driver's seat for the national championship.

All in nine crazy minutes.

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