CHICAGO, March 12 -- In the fog of tragedy, even an overwrought, slipshod Big Ten tournament basketball game can feel therapeutic.
And so it was that University of Illinois Coach Bruce Weber, in the wake of his abrupt mother's death, found a few hours of respite Saturday afternoon, the poor ball-handling of his team not as irksome as it might have otherwise been. With Weber roaming the sidelines, Illinois defeated the University of Minnesota, 64-56, in front of 23,697 at United Center.
_____Who's In_____ These teams have earned automatic bids to the NCAA tournament:
• Bucknell (Patriot League)
• Central Florida (Atlantic Sun)
• Creighton (Missouri Valley)
• Chattanooga (Southern)
• Delaware State (MEAC)
• Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley)
• Fairleigh Dickinson (Northeast)
• George Washington (Atlantic 10)
• Gonzaga (West Coast)
• Louisiana-Lafayette (Sun Belt)
• Louisville (Conference USA)
• Montana (Big Sky)
• New Mexico (MWC)
• Niagara (Metro Atlantic)
• Oakland (Mich.) (Mid-Continent)
• Ohio (MAC)
• Old Dominion (Colonial)
• Pennsylvania (Ivy)
• Syracuse (Big East)
• Texas-El Paso (Western Athletic)
• Vermont (America East)
• Washington (Pacific 10)
• Winthrop (Big South)
• Wis.-Milwaukee (Horizon)
The victory moved Illinois (31-1) into Sunday's championship title game against Wisconsin. But, of course, the plotline centered on Weber, whose mother, Dawn Weber, died Friday night in surgery at Chicago's Rush Memorial Hospital, while her son was coaching Illinois's first-round game against Northwestern.
She had complained of chest pains Friday while picking up tickets at United Center and was rushed into surgery for a torn descending aorta.
Weber spent Friday at the hospital and with his family, and didn't speak with his players until Saturday morning. In a postgame news conference, he said he had last spoken with his mother Tuesday night, and recalled how happy she had been about the coaching success of her sons.
"I was impressed," Illinois forward Nick Smith said of his coach. "That's a tough thing to go through. You're talking mother-father type stuff, whether you're 5, 15 or 50. I was real happy he came out."
Arriving on the court about a minute before the starting lineup introductions, Bruce Weber gave a wave of acknowledgment to the orange-splashed crowd yelling his name, before receiving an embrace from Minnesota Coach Dan Monson.
"It just puts basketball in perspective," said Monson, whose Golden Gophers lost to Illinois by 23 in the teams' only previous meeting this year. "Anyone would trade any basketball moment for his family."
But Weber said his mother would have wanted nothing more than to see her son on the floor.
"Basketball is a very important part of our lives," Weber said. "[My mother] loved it. My dad loved it. We thought it would be the best thing to do."
Senior guard Luther Head, playing in front of his hometown crowd, led a characteristically balanced Illinois scoring attack with 14 points, as each of the Illini's starters scored in double figures for the fourth time this year.
With aberrant difficulties shooting (37 percent), controlling the ball (23 turnovers) and passing the ball (seven fewer assists than its season average), Illinois looked to its defense and rebounding to overcome the persistent Golden Gophers. The Illini forced 20 turnovers, stole the ball 11 times and consistently beat Minnesota on the glass, finishing with 12 more rebounds.
Guard Vincent Grier led the Golden Gophers with 24 points, but blew an opportunity to commandeer second-half momentum when he missed a breakaway windmill dunk with 13 minutes left. Illinois scored on its next two trips down the floor, as forward James Augustine (game-high 14 rebounds) put back an offensive rebound. Head then nailed his fourth three-pointer of the game.
WISCONSIN 69, IOWA 66: Three dribbles in 3.8 seconds: learn it, live it, love it. Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan has been testifying to this theorem all season long. It was brought to bear in thrilling fashion courtesy of Badgers forward Alando Tucker.
"We practice situations like this all the time," Tucker said, before explaining the mathematical legitimacy of his three-point bank shot at the buzzer that won the game for Wisconsin (22-7). Tucker finished with a game-high 20 points, picking up the slack left by forward Mike Wilkinson, who was mired in foul trouble. Badgers forward Zach Morely picked up the rest, adding 17 and six rebounds. Forward Greg Brunner led Iowa (21-11) with 17 points and seven rebounds.
"It was one of those games that you hate to see somebody lose," Hawkeyes Coach Steve Alford said. "It hurts losing on a fadeaway bank shot three at the buzzer."