What is happening? Illinois just beat #2 Michigan and #7 Ohio State on the road in the same week, and in BOTH games we were not the favorite to win. They have won 10 of their last 11. All this, despite having 4 games in 8 days, 3 of which were on the road. They had won three in a row without their closer Ayo Dosunmu, and he returns for a game in which they absolutely needed him, like a true hero from Gotham. They have (likely) just locked in a #1 seed in the tournament for the first time since 2005. I sit here, taking all of this in, in utter awe of the fight in this team, and how good we can be. I have seen all this, yet, I cannot believe it.
For some context before I elaborate, I am a 23-year-old from Saint Louis, and grew up with Illinois Basketball. I have a few vague memories of the ‘04- ‘05 team. I remember my dad telling me how we were about to play the #1 team in the country, Wake Forest. I remember it being a school night, but he extended my bed time to watch the Illini destroy them, 91-73. I remember the frustration of losing at Ohio State to end the regular season. I have an incredibly vivid memory of my dad walking out of the family room as the Fighting Illini trailed by 14 with 3 and a half minutes left in the Elite 8. I, then, remember the team showing that "Fight" in "Fighting Illini", as they rallied back in one of the craziest finishes to a game I have seen, to win in OT.
All of this now seems like a dream. There was a great piece here on TCR called Memories posted a few days ago that echoes this sentiment wonderfully. None of these things feel real to me now. Almost as if when I think about them, I have only seen them through someone else’s eyes. This may be because memories are constructed, often times from stories we have been told.
So, as I sat watching Ace, Belo, and Trent take over the game, and lead Illinois to a win, a beat down in Ann Arbor, without the best player in the country… as I see Ayo smiling for his team on the sidelines… when I see Illinois go for a 9-0 run to finish it out against Ohio State… when we all jump and scream as Ayo closes yet another game, getting the and-1 with 44 seconds to go, and end the regular season by beating that same team that gave us a heart-breaker to end the ’04- ’05 regular season… I can only think, "this is unbelievable". The stuff of memories, a waking dream. It doesn’t feel like it should be real, and yet…
I consulted my father’s memory, jealous of him getting to live through both the Flyin’ Illini of ‘89 and the ‘04- ‘05 run as an adult, yet his response took me by complete surprise. After sending him that article by Quentin Wetzel, he responded saying, "That gave me chills… hard to remember for me too. It has been such a fall from grace. I remember Illinois being a blue blood, but it doesn’t feel real anymore. I guess it doesn’t feel real to any of us 16 years later. We can go through this new change together and make it real again!"
Well here we are. It is real. This is Illinois Basketball. The stuff from our dreams has become a reality. And I am so excited to keep living through it, making new memories, and making it all real again.