ST. LOUIS, April 2 -- As the final seconds ticked away in Saturday night's NCAA tournament national semifinal between Illinois and Louisville at the Edward Jones Dome, Fighting Illini guard Dee Brown dribbled the basketball near midcourt, beat his chest twice and told teammate Luther Head, "That's the way you do it, baby!"
Head and forward Roger Powell Jr., Illinois' two senior starters, showed their teammates how to play on college basketball's biggest stage, scoring 20 points apiece in a 72-57 victory over the fourth-seeded Cardinals in front of 47,754.
Illinois heads to the national championship after defeating Louisville, 72-57, Saturday, as Illini guard Dee Brown begins the celebration.
(Mark Humphrey - AP)
The top-seeded Illini (37-1), who became only the fourth team in Division I history to win 37 games, advanced to Monday night's national championship game, where they will play North Carolina.
"We wrote April 4 on the board about six or seven weeks ago, and we're playing on April 4 in the national championship game, so we're pretty excited," Illinois Coach Bruce Weber said.
Powell, an ordained Pentecostal minister who writes verses from the Bible on each of his orange and white sneakers, scored all but two of his points in the second half and made 9 of 13 shots. Head, who has been bothered by a strained hamstring during much of the NCAA tournament, made six three-pointers, grabbed six rebounds and had five assists.
The seniors' play down the stretch was important for Illinois, which will play for its first national title. Head and Powell combined to score 17 of Illinois' last 22 points, after the Cardinals (33-5) cut the lead to 50-49 on Taquan Dean's three-pointer with 10 minutes 23 seconds remaining. But then the Illini went on an 11-0 run to pull away.
After Powell grabbed an offensive rebound and scored a layup to make it 52-49, Head made three-pointers on consecutive possessions, giving the Illini a 58-49 lead with 7:38 left. Powell hit a short baseline jumper with 6:17 to play, and then James Augustine made 1 of 2 free throws to put Illinois ahead 61-49.
"Roger went to work," Illini point guard Deron Williams said. "He was making shots that were crazy and aren't usually in his repertoire."
The Cardinals, who shot just 38.9 percent, missed four three-point attempts and committed two turnovers during Illinois' game-changing run.
"Illinois was the better basketball team," Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said. "They're a great team, a three-point shot away from being without blemishes. I don't know if they necessarily have the greatest talent I've seen from a Final Four, but they're the best team I've seen in some time."
After Illinois struggled on offense throughout the first 20 minutes and led only 31-28 at halftime, Powell gave the Illini a huge spark to start the second half. After scoring only two points and playing only five minutes in the first half, the senior from Joliet, Ill., opened the second by scoring his team's first nine points.
The Illini had problems penetrating Louisville's suffocating 2-3 zone from the start, and Illinois rarely got the basketball inside to Powell, Jack Ingram and Augustine during the first half. The Cardinals also frustrated the Illini's vaunted guards by sealing off both sides of the lane and preventing them from driving to the basket. When the Illini finally executed a pick-and-roll with about 3 1/2 minutes left in the first half, Augustine caught an interior pass from Head but then blew a wide open layup.
"I didn't think we attacked the zone as well as we should have. All week, we practiced screening the zone, flashing and stepping," Weber said. "We weren't sure [Pitino] would go to a zone because we're such a good shooting team. But he stayed with it until they fell behind."
Williams struggled shooting from the perimeter, and scored five points with nine assists and five rebounds. But he more than made up for his offensive deficiencies by playing solid defense against Francisco Garcia, who is four inches taller. Garcia, who scored 20 points or more in three of Louisville's first four games in NCAA tournament, had only four points on 2-for-10 shooting; Dean scored 12 on 4-for-15 shooting.
"Defense wins championships, and that's what I'm trying to do," Williams said. "I've been out there on the two best players on the court in each of the last two games, and I've just tried to contain them and shut them down."