Illinois shows its mettle against Arizona
ROSEMONT, Ill. — Deron Williams looked up at the scoreboard, frowned and shook his head.
Down 15 with only four minutes to go, Illinois’ season of triumph was about to slip away. All those victories, that near-perfect record, a path to the Final Four that seemed tailor-made for the Illini — none of it would matter. They’d be just another one of those teams that had teetered on the verge of greatness.
And that wasn’t good enough. Not even close.
“I just said not to give up,” Williams said. “That’s what I said on the court. We’ve just got to keep fighting.”
Led by Williams, Illinois (36-1) mounted a furious comeback that is sure to become an NCAA Tournament classic. Williams scored 14 of his 22 points in the last four minutes of regulation and overtime, and Luther Head made huge plays offensively and defensively, as Illinois forced OT and then hung on to beat Arizona, 80-79, to advance to the Final Four.
Fighting Illini, indeed.
“It’s incredible,” Roger Powell Jr. said. “We were meant to be in St. Louis.”
And this is the kind of victory that could propel them to a national championship.
“Coaches have told me, to win the national championship, you’ve got to win a close game, make a big shot,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “Well, we did it today.”
Though the Illini spent 15 straight weeks at No. 1 and were challenged plenty, they were never really threatened. They lost one game, the regular-season finale, and it took a last-second shot. They led a ridiculous amount, some 90 percent of their games, and never trailed by double digits until Saturday night.
But when it comes to winning a national championship, being good isn’t enough. Teams need mental toughness, the grit to hang in there when things get bleak. Louisville proved it has it, coming from 20 points down to beat West Virginia and earn a spot in the Final Four against Illinois.
Now, everyone knows the Illini have it, too.
“We’ve had a goal, a dream to make it to St. Louis,” Williams said. “I wasn’t going to let (losing) happen.”
Williams is the most gifted player on the team, a rare blend of power, shooting skill, tenacious defense and uncanny vision. He can easily go off for 20-plus points a game, as he did in the Chicago Regional. He was 5 of 9 from 3-point range Saturday night, and he scored 21 on 8-of-12 shooting in Thursday night’s semifinal.
But with an ability to see the entire floor and envision plays before they unfold, the point guard is just as content to make his teammates look good. He’s averaging 6.7 assists a game, and he had 10 on Saturday night.
“I’ve won some awards this year, and he’s come up to me a couple of times and congratulated me. And I’ve told him, ‘I win because of you.’ He’s been our foundation,” Weber said.
“Those shots down the stretch, we could have panicked. That’s where Deron comes in. He’s got a great feel for the game, and he doesn’t panic.”
It was Williams who yelled for his teammates to huddle up when all seemed lost, telling them they weren’t done yet. And it was Williams who put on a shooting clinic that destroyed the Wildcats’ spirit.
After Arizona took its 15-point lead — the largest deficit Illinois has faced all year — Williams started the rally with a 3-pointer. After a pair of Arizona free throws, he found Head, who made a 3.
He bulldozed his way inside for a layup that cut the lead to six, then fed Head for another 3. After Jack Ingram poked the ball away from Salim Stoudamire, Williams raced down the court and popped up one more 3-pointer.
Just like that, the game was tied, 80-80.
Williams was at it again in overtime, having a hand in three of Illinois’ four baskets. He made two more 3-pointers, and he had an assist on a layup by Powell. He also kept up his pressure on Stoudamire, who never got a chance at last-second heroics because he couldn’t get open.
Flustered by Illinois’ pressure, the only shot Arizona got was a 3-pointer by Hassan Adams that never had a chance.
“Instead of looking at what went wrong with Arizona, I think you’ve got to give those kids from Illinois a tremendous amount of praise,” Arizona coach Lute Olson said. “They did a great job.”
And when it was finally over, the Illinois players let out screams of elation and relief. They piled together in the middle of the floor for a group hug, then gleefully put on the T-shirts and hats that let everyone know they were going to the Final Four.
Just as they promised.
“There was definitely a lot of pressure on us. We made that pressure, because we set a goal of getting to the Final Four this year,” Williams said. “We were able to get it done. We were able to fight back. That makes it that much more special.”