I was a freshman in college in 2004-05. I remember watching in my dorm room in amazement as the Illinois Fighting Illini destroyed then-top-ranked Wake Forest at Assembly Hall. I remember seeing Illinois’ undefeated season dashed by Matt Sylvester. I remember the Illini hoisting the Big Ten title trophy at United Center. But the most memorable performance of that season is one I don’t remember at all.
Geographically, Illinois had everything set up for them in the 2005 NCAA Tournament. The Fighting Illini were the No. 1 overall seed in the Big Dance, played the first two rounds in Indianapolis, and were playing in a regional final in suburban Chicago for the opportunity to reach the Final Four in St. Louis.
Bruce Weber’s Illini boasted a starting lineup of Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head, Roger Powell & James Augustine — four future NBA players.
The 35-1 Illini dispatched of Fairleigh Dickinson, Nevada, and Wisconsin-Milwaukee en route to the Elite Eight. Only one more opponent stood in their way: Lute Olsen’s Arizona Wildcats.
‘Zona, like Illinois, was loaded — Salim Stoudamire, Mustafa Shakur, Hassan Adams, Channing Frye, Ivan Radenovic. The Wildcats entered play at 28-5, averaged 81 PPG, and shot 40% as a team from long range.
And in front of a partisan Allstate Arena crowd, Arizona did all it could to silence the Illini faithful. Frye recorded 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 blocked shots. Adams poured in 21 points on 9-of-13 field goals. An 18-6 burst late in the second half put the Wildcats ahead 15.
The Fighting Illini trailed 75-60 with about four minutes left, and 19-year-old me shrugged and figured that would be the proper moment to leave for a party with my roommate. THIS GAME’S OVER! THERE’S NO POSSIBLE WAY THEY COULD COME BACK!
Imagine my surprise when I watched SportsCenter the next morning to see that the improbable had happened — Illinois had not only forced overtime, but won. Inspired play by Dee, Luther & Deron helped spur the Illini’s 20-5 run, and D-Will’s triple knotted the game at 80-80 with 38 seconds left in regulation. He would make two more threes in the overtime to propel Illinois to a 90-89 win.
Williams led the Illini with 22 points and 10 dimes. Stoudamire, who averaged more than 18 points per game during the season, scored just nine against Illinois on 2-of-13 shooting.
The most epic comeback in Illini basketball history...and I never saw it. Of the hundreds of games I’ve watched throughout the years...THAT is the one I missed?! In retrospect, I guess it makes for a better story. Thankfully I can relive it because of YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, platforms that weren’t available in 2005.
The Fighting Illini went on to soundly beat Louisville in the Final Four before falling to North Carolina in the National Championship. Even if Illinois had won the chip, it’s hard to imagine it being a more memorable game than this one.