ST. LOUIS - In the end, it was more about defense than destiny, more about its selfless supporting cast than its two biggest stars.
The Illinois basketball team has started and ended every practice since October with the chant "national champion" and now the Fighting Illini are one step away from their goal.
With second-half offensive explosions from Roger Powell Jr. and Luther Head, a lot of defense and a little of everything from everybody else, the top-ranked Fighting Illini took down Louisville, 72-57, last night in front of 47,754 at the Edward Jones Dome in the national semifinal and advanced to their first-ever national championship game.
Illinois (37-1) will play North Carolina (32-4) tomorrow night, trying to break the record for most wins in a season.
Last night's victory allowed Illinois, which has carried the "Team of Destiny" moniker nearly since taking over as the No. 1 team in mid-December, to tie the 1999 and 1986 Duke teams and the 1987 UNLV team for total wins.
"We put April 4th on the board six weeks ago ... and we are playing April 4th in the national championship," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "We are very excited."
Leading 50-49 with just more than 10 minutes to play, the Fighting Illini went on an 11-0 run, sending the sea of orange and blue that made the Edward Jones Dome look more like Assembly Hall back in Champaign into a frenzy.
The run wasn't flashy or overwhelming, nothing about how the Fighting Illini picked apart the Cardinals (33-5) last night. But was Illinois ever efficient and resourceful, picking up 21 assists to Louisville's 10 and out-rebounding the Cardinals, 38-26.
"We lost to a better team tonight," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. "It's not a game of statistics right now because we lost. It was a game of Illinois being better. ... I don't know if they necessarily had the greatest talent I've seen from a Final Four, but they're the best team I've seen in some time."
Illinois star point guard Deron Williams was held scoreless for more than 38 minutes after burying an early three, but he did dish out nine assists and forced Louisville star Francisco Garcia into a 2-for-10 shooting performance and a season-low four points. And this came after Williams hurried Arizona star Salim Stoudamire into a 2-for-13 game in the Elite Eight.
"That's what makes him special," said Weber. "He wants to win. He's the foundation of our team."
Illinois' other star Dee Brown had eight points, although he was scoreless in the second half. It didn't matter. Powell, who averages less than 12 points a game, scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half after sitting for all but five minutes in the first 20 minutes because of foul trouble.
Head, the senior sharp-shooter from Chicago, had 14 of his 20 points in the decisive second half and he also played a role in harassing the Cardinals' pair of guards Taquan Dean and Larry O'Bannon into a combined 8-for-25 shooting.
"We just tried to contest every shot and just hoped they miss," said Head, who was 6-for-11 from three-point range, scoring all his field goals on three-pointers. "They're both good players."
Even with Louisville's struggles on offense, which came even though the Cardinals committed only five turnovers and one in the first half, they took their first lead of the game at 33-31 with 18:27 to go. O'Bannon's two free throws capped a 9-0 run spanning halftime.
But that's when Powell, a licensed Pentecostal minister, took over. With Williams and Brown barely even looking for their shot, Powell scored nine straight points for the Illini, including a dunk off his own miss of a three-point shot.
"It just was going in the second half," said Powell. "It was really a blessing. I really did pray at halftime and it seemed like it worked. It was just bouncing my way. On that tip dunk, I just knew it was going to come off like that. I don't know why, I just knew."
Said Head: "He just took the game in his hands."
Powell, a 6-foot-6 junior forward, also had two baskets in that 11-0 run, but it was Head who put away Louisville. He drained two straight threes to give Illinois a 58-49 lead. All told, the Cardinals were held without a point for more than five minutes during the Illini's surge.
Louisville got the game back in single digits with baskets by Ellis Myles (17 points) on three straight possessions. However, Head knocked down a three after Myles' first score in that run, and then Williams found Powell alone on the other end for an easy layup and a 66-54 Illinois lead with just more than 2 1/2 minutes to play.
By then, Illinois faithful, who were joined in celebration by the fans of their Big Ten brethren Michigan State, were already celebrating.
"We feel good about what we did and what we've accomplished," said Head. "But we don't want it to end. I mean, whoever we got next, we want to go and play hard so we can finish it off."