ROSEMONT, Ill., March 26 -- Illinois forward Roger Powell Jr., an ordained Pentecostal minister whom his teammates call "Rev," was standing at midcourt Saturday night, pointing his finger up toward the aging, planked roof of Allstate Arena. Clearly, someone important was watching over the top-seeded Illini during the final minutes of their 90-89 overtime win over third-seeded Arizona in the final of the Chicago Region.
Trailing by 15 points with four minutes to go and then by eight with 63 seconds left, the Illini staged one of the greatest comebacks in NCAA tournament history to force overtime. And then, after going ahead 90-84 in overtime, Illinois withstood a furious rally by the Wildcats during the final seconds to hold on for the victory.
Luther Head celebrates the Illini's 90-89 overtime win against Arizona in the Chicago Regional final.
(Jeff Roberson - AP)
_____Illinois Rally Capsule_____
75-60, 4:00 left in regulation.
20-5 over last four minutes of regulation.
Deron Williams scored 11 points over last 1:10 of regulation and first 2:44 of overtime.
Not until Arizona guard Hassan Adams missed an off-balance three-point attempt as time expired were the Illini (36-1) assured of advancing to next weekend's Final Four in St. Louis, where they will play Louisville in the national semifinals.
"It looked like we were dead," Illinois Coach Bruce Weber said. "But we made some plays and came back. . . . It was just a blur. I'm sure it's a game that will be shown many, many times as a classic. We just kept believing."
As soon as Adams's three-pointer bounced off the backboard and fell to the court, Illinois guard Dee Brown, the jovial junior wearing an orange mouthpiece, high socks and a white headband, threw his arms up in the air and raced around the court. Arizona guard Salim Stoudamire pulled his jersey over his head near the baseline, shaking his head in disbelief.
"It looked bad," Illinois guard Deron Williams said. "We just had to keep our heads up and keep fighting. We still had time. We just had to keep believing."
Said Brown: "It was a miracle. We made every play we had to make. It was just meant to be."
Illinois, which won its first 29 games and has been considered the favorite to win the national championship for much of the season, advanced to the Final Four for the fifth time and first since 1989. The loss denied Arizona Coach Lute Olson a fifth appearance in the national semifinals.
"They're never going to give up," Olson said of Illinois. "Down the stretch, we made a number of mistakes not coming to the ball. They got some interceptions on us, but, to their credit, they knocked down some three-pointers under tremendous pressure. . . . We'll look at the end of the game for a long time. There are a number of things that are going to cause sleepless nights for everyone."
After Mustafa Shakur made two foul shots for an 80-72 lead with 1:03 to go for Arizona (30-7), Luther Head nailed a three-pointer from the left wing with 54 seconds left to make it 80-75. On the Wildcats' next possession, Brown swiped the basketball from Shakur and scored a layup on the other end to cut Arizona's lead to 80-77 with 45 seconds remaining.
Olson called a 30-second timeout to calm his players and to design an inbounds play, knowing the Illini would utilize the full-court press to try to force another turnover. The Wildcats tried to throw the inbounds pass to center Channing Frye above the foul line, but he was bumped by Illinois' Jack Ingram, and Brown stole the ball. He frantically dribbled around and then threw a pass to the top of the key for Williams, who drilled a three-pointer to tie the score at 80 with 38.6 seconds to play.
"We committed stupid turnovers, and they took advantage of them," Frye said.
Olson called another timeout with 31 seconds left and designed a play for the Wildcats to get the ball to Stoudamire, college basketball's best three-point shooter during the regular season. Stoudamire got the ball near the top of the key, dribbled the clock down to about 10 seconds and started to break toward the basket. But Williams prevented Stoudamire from cutting into the lane, forcing the second-team all-American to pass to freshman Jawann McClellan, who missed a three-point shot. Stoudamire got the basketball back with less than two seconds left, but Head blocked his shot, forcing overtime.
"The defense collapsed on me, so I wasn't going to force it and kicked it out to Jawann," Stoudamire said.
The Illini held Stoudamire to nine points on 2-for-13 shooting, including 1-for-7 on three-point attempts. Frye led the Wildcats with 24 points and 12 rebounds, and Adams scored 21 on 9-for-13 shooting.
Illinois' three starting guards combined to score 57 points and made 13 three-pointers. Williams had 22 points and 10 assists, and Head had 20 points and four steals. The guards scored all but two of Illinois' points during overtime and scored the last 20 points of regulation.
"This is a relief to make it to the Final Four," Weber said. "The kids deserve this."