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Facing Down the Demons

When the Illini beat Arizona, they conquered their own past.

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The Illini were forced to confront one last demon before claiming a spot in this weekend's Final Four. They had to face Arizona, which had upset Illinois in the regional final in 2001--the last time Illinois fielded a top-seeded, championship-caliber team. That Illinois team had size and experience up front in Brian Cook, Sergio McClain, and Robert Archibald and a skilled point guard in Frank Williams, but Arizona was simply tougher. Even though the Illini had a home crowd behind them this time at the Allstate Arena, the game progressed with a disturbing deja vu as a deeper, more athletic Arizona team took command.

But it turned out these Illini were acknowledging their demons the better to defeat them. Down 15 points with four minutes to play, a time when previous Illinois teams would have packed it in, the 2005 edition came roaring back to tie the score, then win the game in overtime. It was Arizona that panicked; up 15, the Wildcats didn't score another field goal in regulation.

This season's Illini have claimed all along they're different, and they proved it in a game that was most reminiscent of the sixth game of the 1992 NBA finals, when the Bulls came from 15 back in the fourth quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers to win the only championship they'd clinch in the old Chicago Stadium. The Illini will determine this weekend whether they go down in history as a great team, but they already look the part, in that way great teams have of reflecting one another from sport to sport and year to year. Like last year's NBA champs, the Detroit Pistons, the Illini are a team based on defense. But they resemble even more last year's World Series champs, the Boston Red Sox, given their similar cursed histories. Like the Bosox, the Illini have had to overcome the forbidding expectations of even their most loyal fans; like the Bosox, the Illini are a team not of great athletes but of players unified in a way that's emphasized their strengths and minimized their weaknesses. The 1989 Flying Illini were a far more athletic Final Four team, but the disparate talents of this season's Illini uniquely suit one another.

Look at the three guards. Deron Williams has an erect, almost slapping dribbling style and has been the most erratic shooter of the three; but he's the most composed, the one most trusted to run the offense at a pace best suited to the opponent. Husky and determined, he's also been the best spot-up defender, which he showed against Arizona by throttling the Wildcats' best scorer, Salim Stoudamire. And he picked that game to have his best shooting performance of the season, hitting several key three-pointers, including the shot that tied the game at 80 and sent it into overtime. Smaller and far speedier, Dee Brown is the more stereotypical point guard, and he refined his shooting this season, but when he's running the offense he's prone to overheat. He never would have guided the Illini as coolly as Williams did in overtime against Arizona, but he came up with key steals in the comeback, along with one monster offensive rebound down among the taller players. Luther Head is the most athletic of the three, a Public League standout at Manley who might be the only current Illinois player who'd have fit in with the Flying Illini. He's also been the most uneven, his eyebrows sometimes seeming to curl to the sides with worry in the manner of a Peanuts character. But Head provided a couple of essential steals in the Arizona comeback, and a couple of key three-pointers.

The tall, thin center, James Augustine, won the opening tip in almost every game the Illini played this season, but he lacks the bulk one associates with centers and runs with a stiff-legged gait, like an old man in a bathrobe chasing the dog that's carrying off his morning paper. He all but disappeared against Arizona, as Wildcats center Channing Frye and forward Hassan Adams chewed up the Illini inside, making a combined 20 of 27 shots; but he carried the Illini through the Big Ten tournament and the early rounds of the NCAAs. Illinois forward Roger Powell, known as "the Preacher" for being a genuine Bible-thumping Pentecostal minister, has been the meekest of the starters and the one most affected by pressure; but he played well in the early going against Arizona. He and Augustine were spelled throughout the game by Jack Ingram, the tough bench player with the fierce look of a Gary Oldman villain and a deceptively soft shooting touch.

That's the unit that came together as a team--Augustine too thin, Powell too cautious, Head too nervous, Brown too excitable, and Williams just plain not good enough a shot. But together, all those apparent shortcomings turned into strengths.

I remember that title-clinching 1992 Bulls game, when Bobby Hansen hit a three to rally the Bulls to victory at home, and I never thought I'd see the like--until last Saturday. Williams and Head hit threes. Brown converted that unlikely offensive rebound. When Powell was snuffed on an offensive rebound the Illini's fate seemed sealed with 100 seconds to go, but Head made a steal and raced to a layup, Williams went coast-to-coast with a rebound, and Head added another three. Then Brown made a steal and a breakaway layin, and when Ingram deflected an inbounds pass Williams got the ball and hit an open three for the tie. The Illini defense held in the final seconds. Brown threw away a rebound, but Head, who'd been trying to signal for a time-out, recovered to snuff Stoudamire. Despite falling behind 84-83, the Illini controlled the overtime. Powell cut to the hoop for a go-ahead basket, Williams slipped around a screen for an open three, and Head finished the Illinois scoring with one last steal and the drive for a layin. The Illini held on to win 90-89.

Championship runs linger in the memory because they take on the characteristics of a quest, a series of tasks in which a team confronts obstacles from without and within. No matter how things turn out this weekend, many Chicagoans will always remember Illinois' regional final here as the night when a partisan crowd turned the Allstate Arena into the Chicago Stadium and the Illini once and for all silenced their doubters--and their self-doubt most of all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Doug Benc--Getty Images.

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