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This Time, Illinois' Rally Falls Two Minutes Short

By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page D04

ST. LOUIS, April 4 -- Illinois guards Luther Head and Deron Williams helped carry their team back from a 15-point deficit again on Monday night. But after making so many big shots for the top-ranked Fighting Illini this season, Head and Williams came up empty in the final two minutes of the NCAA tournament final at the Edward Jones Dome.

The guards each missed two three-point attempts in the final 2 minutes 1 second that would have either tied the score or given the Fighting Illini the lead. Instead, Illinois missed its last five shots in North Carolina's 75-70 victory, which denied the Illini their first national championship in 100 years of basketball.

"We felt if we had to take 70 shots we weren't going to win, and that's what happened," Illinois Coach Bruce Weber said. "They shot better than us, but we had a couple of looks. Deron had a look, Luther had a look, and they didn't go down. It wasn't meant to be. They've been a tremendous group. I can't ask for more."

The Illini, who lost for just the second time, failed to become the first team to win 38 games in a season. Three other teams went to the Final Four -- Duke in 1986 and 1999, and Nevada-Las Vegas in 1987 -- with a chance to win 38 games and all failed to win a national championship.

"Our goal was to get to the Final Four and compete for the national championship. We did that," said Williams, who scored 17 points and had seven assists. "It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth not getting to cut down the nets and to see the seniors go out with a bang like we wanted them to do."

Illinois' back court of Dee Brown, Head and Williams combined to shoot 34 of Illinois' 40 three-point attempts, which is 10 more than the previous championship game record set by Kentucky in its 84-79 overtime loss to Arizona in 1997. Head made 5 of 16 three-point attempts and scored 21 points. It was the most three-point attempts by a player in a championship game and second-most in the Final Four (UNLV's Freddie Banks shot 19 in a semifinal loss to Indiana in 1987).

The Illini were behind by 13 points after the first half -- just their third halftime deficit of the season -- and by 15 points, 47-32, with 18:03 to go. But Head and Williams combined to score 16 of their team's next 18 points, and Williams's three-pointer from the left corner made it 57-53 with 11:41 left. After the Tar Heels went back up by 10 points, 65-55, with about nine minutes to play, the Illini went on a 10-0 run and tied the score at 65 with 5:34 remaining.

But then the Illini scored only two more baskets -- Williams's short jumper and Head's three-pointer, which tied the score at 70 with 2:39 left. With a chance to take the lead on three consecutive possessions, Williams missed a three-pointer, Head missed one and Williams missed again. With 35 seconds left, Tar Heels point guard Raymond Felton stole Head's pass to Williams in the lane. Felton made 1 of 2 free throw attempts to give North Carolina a 73-70 lead with 25 seconds to go.

After a Tar Heels timeout, Head got the ball on the right wing and was open on a three-point attempt. But his shot bounced off the left side of the rim, straight up in the air and into the corner of the court in front of the Illinois' bench. Felton ran down the rebound, and Illinois' dream season was over.

"It was just a blast," Weber said. "I hate to see it end."

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