Cool, calm Illini had no problem collecting win against Cardinals

April 03, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

ST. LOUIS - Nothing Illinois could do last night in the national semifinal against Louisville could have topped the drama of what it did a week earlier in the regional final, storming back from 15 points down in the last four minutes of regulation against Arizona. If ever there were a snapshot of the poise this team possesses, it was taken that night in Chicago.

By comparison, last night was just another game. That's the way the Illini approached it, that's the way they played it, and that's the way they practically strolled into tomorrow's national championship game.

Louisville's efficient zone, its unnerving full-court press, its deadeye shooters, its inside muscle and reach - Illinois shrugged it all off. Just another game - another cool, composed and eerily confident stroll toward a date with history.

Good luck to North Carolina matching Illinois in that category. Many descriptions fit these Tar Heels, but "composed" isn't generally one of them. Not that they're as annoyingly undisciplined as they've been known to be, or else they wouldn't still be around.

But if you believe calm and grace under pressure is the determining factor in your title-game pick, your money ought to be on Illinois, and just as emphatically not on North Carolina. Don't say you weren't warned.

"They're tough, they're well-coached, they've got the heart of a lion," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo after his team was buried in the nightcap. "Not to say North Carolina isn't, but Illinois has one of those refuse-to-lose teams."

Last night's first game at the Edward Jones Dome should have been all the proof you needed. For a team that hasn't been here before (not since the current players were playing in sandboxes), Illinois acted like a team that's been here before.

"I was glad we were able to go play our style of basketball," said Deron Williams, who this time didn't need gaudy numbers to reflect the utter control he had over this game. "We didn't want the atmosphere of a Final Four to change our style of play."

Said Illini coach Bruce Weber: "I understand it's 47,000 [in the stands]. But we've been on the center stage all year. We've been No. 1. We've had some of the best-rated games on different networks all year. Everybody's watched us. [So] blank it out.

"I talked [to them] about just being a ballplayer," he continued. "Whether you're playing one-on-one in the park, three-on-three in the gym, you have to play the same way you do with that."

So the Illini went out against a Louisville team that had earned its berth much the same way Illinois had, that had won 13 straight and was the sleeper pick by many to win it all, and calmly picked it apart. Nothing ever seemed forced, except when it had to be. They weren't blinded by the lights, their heartbeats didn't quicken because of the atmosphere, and certainly not because Louisville was doing anything to worry them.

At this point, so near the end of a season whose vise tightened every day for four months, Illinois is beyond petty matters such as nerves, pressure, disruptions of their physical or mental states.

"I think the maturity is a big part of it," said Roger Powell Jr., whose surprise contributions in the second half basically put Louisville away for good. "We played all year with the [winning] streak behind us. So there really was no pressure [last night], because we've had to handle that, not having lost a game, and people wanting us to keep winning. That's why we were able to play so loose."

Powell, an ordained minister, said he prayed for strength and confidence at halftime, after a long first-half stretch on the bench with two fouls. He came back out hot, with 18 second-half points, including two on a thunderclap of a dunk when he chased down his own missed three-pointer.

Most would consider his performance a stunning turn of events. Illinois just saw it as a natural response to a Louisville zone that was pushing farther out to control the guards and left its interior exposed.

Simple strategic adjustments and a mind-set that doesn't recognize panic - it's done wonders for this team. Actually, Illinois refuses to acknowledge a number of outside factors that might stress others out: being ranked No. 1 for the past four months, being the last unbeaten team, trying to go the distance unbeaten, bouncing back from that lone, season-ending loss.

And any questions about having faced low seeds and Cinderellas and short travel times throughout the postseason, have been answered on consecutive Saturdays, with the stunning comeback against Arizona and now the domination of a damn good Louisville team. The bigger the stakes, the better they play - and the tougher the opposing player, the worse his resulting nightmare. A week after smothering Salim Stoudamire into 2-for-13 shooting, the Illini strangled Francisco Garcia into a 2-for-10 night.

This time, as opposed to the searing emotion of the final four minutes and overtime, they never even had to wave their arms or pump their fists to get themselves and another "home" crowd into the game.

Why do it? It was just another game, win No. 37, with one more to go.

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