ST. LOUIS, April 2 -- All the attention and all the hype was on top-seeded Illinois's sweet-shooting trio of guards entering Saturday's NCAA tournament semifinal against Louisville. But with a berth in college basketball's national championship game on the line, and the score tied at 31 early in the second half, a soft-spoken forward -- Roger Powell Jr. -- ignited the scoring flurry that put the Illini up for good and paved their way to Monday's title game with 72-57 victory at Edward Jones Dome.
Powell barely contributed a peep in the game's first half, relegated to the bench by Coach Bruce Weber after collecting two quick fouls in five minutes of play.
Roger Powell Jr.'s clutch shooting helped Illinois beat Louisville in the second half.
(Eric Gay - AP)
An ordained minister, Powell bowed his head in prayer at halftime, asking for strength for his team. Weber weighed in next, seeing in Powell the precise strength that his team was lacking.
Back in the lineup to start the second half, the senior responded with a vengeance, reeling off five points and two offensive rebounds in 30 seconds. Powell nailed his first three-pointer and raced to the opposite end of the court and grabbed a defensive rebound. Then came his master stroke: Realizing his second three-point attempt was going to rim out, he raced to the basket the moment he released the ball, grabbed the rebound and stuffed it for a dunk that gave Illinois a 36-33 lead.
The orange-slathered crowd of 47,754 went wild. And Powell's confidence took flight, as well. He finished with a team-high 20 points (matched by senior guard Luther Head) on 9-of-13 shooting while contributing five of Illinois' 38 rebounds.
"He went through a stretch where he just took the game in his hands, and he just took on the scoring," Head said of Powell.
Gushed forward James Augustine: "Roger hit that first three, missed the second one, but when he gets that rebound, you don't see that very often -- shooting it from the three, running all the way and dunking it!"
Weber had hoped his team would play loose and relaxed in the biggest game of the season. Shortly before tip-off, he told his players that the evening's game would be no different than playing one-on-one in the playground or three-on-three in the gym. But as the first half unfolded, the national coach of the year decided that his guards were tossing up three-point shots with a little too much abandon. In 20 minutes' play, they had taken 19 three-point shots, connecting on six. They closed the first half with a 31-28 lead, but having whiffed on three three-point shots in the final 58 seconds of the period.
So at halftime Weber said he wanted his players to move the ball around more and look for chances to work it inside against Louisville's big men, who weren't having a particularly impressive night. What Weber wanted, in short, was less frantic shot selection and a more a natural rhythm to his players' shots.
Then he tapped Powell, who had spent 15 of the game's 20 minutes on the bench, and told him to get going.
Powell's presence seemed to inject a measure of maturity into the team.
And as the final minutes wound down, and Illinois' victory was clearly in hand, the Illini displayed no histrionics. Guard Dee Brown dribbled the ball with one eye on the clock and one eye on the Louisville defenders, who refused to foul in vain. And Powell just stood on the court and raised both arms in the air, fingers pointed to the heavens.
"I was pointing to Jesus," he explained. "I was just thinking I was really thankful."
Said Weber: "I said a way long time ago, our juniors are great. But we are not better than our seniors. Our seniors will determine how good we are. I think they stood up big tonight and made a difference. They got us to the championship."