ROSEMONT, Ill., March 24 -- As if trying to become the first No. 12 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament wasn't a tall enough order for Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Thursday night, the Panthers walked into Allstate Arena among a sea of orange shirts and a chorus of loud boos.
Thousands of Fighting Illini fans, who were enjoying what was essentially a home game in the semifinals of the Chicago Region, came to cheer college basketball's top-ranked team. And, of course, many came to boo Bruce Pearl, the Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach who, as an assistant at Iowa 16 years ago, turned Illinois in to the NCAA for recruiting violations.
Illinois Coach Bruce Weber makes his intentions clear to his team. The Illini improved to 35-1.
(Allen Fredrickson -- Reuters)
The Illini (35-1) and their fans got whatever revenge they were looking for by beating the Panthers, 77-63, in the arena formerly known as Rosemont Horizon. In the final five minutes, Wisconsin-Milwaukee (26-6) got as close as nine points, 70-61, on guard Ed McCants's three-pointer from the left corner. But Illinois then held the Panthers to only two foul shots the rest of the way, and put them away for good when guard Luther Head nailed a three-pointer from the right corner with 1 minute 14 seconds remaining.
As Head's shot fell through the net, he turned to the crowd and stuck out his tongue. Shortly thereafter, Pearl raised his arms in frustration, walked toward the end of his team's bench, grabbed a player's towel and threw it to the floor. After the Illini dribbled out the final seconds, Pearl and Illinois Coach Bruce Weber shook hands and the trying experience was over for both teams.
"We were trying to make history tonight," Pearl said. "We were trying to do something that's never been done before, so we're disappointed."
Illinois, which has yet to play an NCAA tournament game more than 150 miles from its campus in Champaign (the Illini beat 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson and ninth-seeded Nevada in Indianapolis last weekend), advanced to the final eight for the second time in five seasons. The Illini will play third-seeded Arizona in Saturday's region final, with the winner advancing to the Final Four in St. Louis.
"We've just taken care of business," Weber said. "Now, we've got a great opportunity. We're playing good basketball. We'll see if it's our best."
Strong guard play again was the difference for the Illini, as senior Deron Williams and junior Dee Brown each scored 21 points and combined for 10 assists and seven three-pointers. Head, the Illini's third guard, had 12 points and six assists. The Illinois guards didn't have many problems with the Panthers' pressing, trapping defense, either, as they turned over the ball nine times, just three times in the second half.
"We knew going in they had three great guards," McCants said. "Obviously, they're all all-Americans."
Junior forward Joah Tucker led the Panthers with 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting, scoring 20 in the first half. McCants, Wisconsin-Milwaukee's honorable mention all-American, was held scoreless in the first half and finished with 13 points on 4-of-17 shooting.
Pearl and his band of overachieving journeymen -- five of the Panthers' top 10 players transferred from other schools -- mostly kept Illinois fans at bay during the first half. But with less than 10 minutes to play in the game, many Illini fans began squirming in their blue seats as the Panthers pulled within seven points, 58-51, on Tucker's layup and foul shot.
But then Williams drilled a three-pointer from the top of the key. After two Panthers missed foul shots on the next possession, Brown made a long three-pointer from the right wing, putting the Illini in front, 64-51, with 8:23 to play. On the Panthers' bench, Pearl saw his team's chances slipping away.
"We're sorry that the season has ended because we've been having so much fun," Pearl said. "These players have taken this university and the city of Milwaukee on a ride they won't soon forget."