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March Madness moments: Illinois’ 15-point comeback vs. Arizona in 2005 Elite Eight

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As March Madness is almost here, we take a trip down memory lane and look back at some of the best viral moments in NCAA tournament history. Here is The Champaign Room’s take on the Illini’s comeback win over Arizona in 2005:

Shoutout to the best Sports Illustrated cover of all time. That magazine stayed framed on my wall until I graduated high school and moved out.

March can mean only one thing — it’s time for Illinois fans’ favorite trip down memory lane. Seventeen years ago, Illini faithful (and 5-year-old me) were treated to the greatest comeback in NCAA Tournament history, cementing me and — I’m sure — countless others as an Illinois fan for life.

With just 4 minutes remaining and a Final Four trip on the line, the Illini trailed the Arizona Wildcats by 15. I was at my grandparent’s house in Hoopeston (go Cornjerkers) with my parents, sister and uncle watching as our dear Illini were faltering against Channing Frye and Hassan Adams. Then, the unthinkable happened.

*cue the Miracle on Ice speech*


Deron Williams connected on a three from the wing. Down 12.

Illinois foul. Down 14.

Bang! Luther Head three from the wing. Down 11.

Arizona turnover and a chance to cut it to single digits. This game isn’t over yet.

Dee Brown grabs an offensive board amongst the trees and gets the putback to go. Now, only down 9. Jay Bilas knows what’s about to happen: “There is plenty of time left in this ballgame.”

The Illini’s fullcourt pressure is starting to bother the Zona guards. Illinois forces Arizona into a tough midrange jumper, but can’t get the answer to go on the other end. Still down 9 with just 100 seconds remaining at this point, and it’s starting to feel like all hope is lost.

But wait! Head jumps the passing lane and takes it down for a layup. Down 7 with 81 seconds left.

The Illini foul Jawann McClellan who splits the pair at the line. Still a three possession game.

Deron takes it coast-to-coast for the answer to make it a 6-point game with just over a minute left.

Mustafa Shakur extends the Zona lead back to 8. At this point, I’m doing the math in my head, and it’s not looking great for my Illini.

BANG! Luther from deep again. Illinois down 5.

Dee picks one of the Arizona’s guards’ pocket up near midcourt, and Deron sets him up with a sweet bounce pass up the floor. All of a sudden it’s a one possession game with 45 seconds to go. There’s a lot of nervous energy in my grandma’s house. My dad is screaming at the TV (a tradition that I’ve now adopted) and pacing the room. Can they REALLY do this?!

Then, it happened.

“Ingram to bat the ball away, Williams to tie it with a three? HE DOES!!”

Bill Murray is losing his mind in the crowd and so is every household across the state of Illinois.

Arizona takes what felt like its eighth timeout in the last three minutes, but that doesn’t stop the I-L-L, I-N-I chants from reverberating through the arena up at DePaul.

Dee almost throws the game away, but Luther blocks the game-winning three-point attempt, and we head to overtime.

Illinois and Arizona trade punches through the first three minutes of OT before a Deron Williams three extends the lead to four, 88-84. Then, Luther jumps another passing lane for an easy fastbreak layup to put the Illini up 6 with less than two to go.

Hassan Adams cut the lead down to 3 with an old-fashioned three-point play. Deron can’t connect on either of his looks, and the Wildcats trim the lead to a single point with 50 seconds left.

The Wildcats settle for a contested look from three, and Illinois has pulled off the improbable.


I’ve never seen a game like it, and I probably never will in the rest of my lifetime. But that day — March 26, 2005 — was my first memory of Illinois Basketball, and certainly won’t be the last. I can only imagine what Twitter would’ve looked like had it been around at that time — ideally a lot of deep fried Luther, Dee, Deron, Bruce and Nick Smith memes in Arizona’s final score mentions. But at least we get to relive this moment every March.

Here’s to hopefully putting the Loyola debacle to bed and creating lasting memories like this for the next generation of Illini fans.