ILLINOIS 72, L'VILLE 57: A big second half by seniors Roger Powell and Luther Head help the Illini pull away.
By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published April 3, 2005
ST. LOUIS - Illinois coach Bruce Weber has told folks for months that as good as juniors Deron Williams, Dee Brown and James Augustine were, a historic run would depend on another class.
"Our seniors will determine how good we are," he said.
That meant forward Roger Powell, guard Luther Head and backup centers Jack Ingram and Nick Smith, the former Bloomingdale High standout, had to be more than a supporting cast.
They were on the grandest of stages and biggest of moments.
Powell scored 18 of his 20 points during the second half, and Head scored 14 of his 20 after the break as the Fighting Illini blew open a close game and beat Louisville 72-57 on Saturday night to advance to the NCAA Tournament finale for the first time in school history.
They've only been playing basketball for a century. The Fighting Illini reached the Final Four on four other occasions, most recently in 1989. "The seniors carried us," Weber said. "I said a long time ago our juniors are great, but we are no better than our seniors.
"I think they stood up big and made a difference. They got us to the championship."
The Illini (37-1), ranked No.1 since Dec.6 and unbeaten until the regular-season finale, also tied the season record for wins, although none of the other three with 37 made it to 38. Duke lost to Louisville in the 1986 final and to Connecticut in the 1999 final, and UNLV lost in the 1987 national semifinals to eventual champion Indiana. "We feel good about what we did and what we've accomplished," Head said. "But we don't want it to end."
"They're a great team, a 3-point shot away from being without blemishes," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "They truly are a great team. I'm not sure if they have the greatest talent I've seen from a Final Four team, but they're the best team I've seen in some time."
That's not limited to Williams, the most outstanding player in the Chicago Region, Brown, the Big Ten player of the year and second-team Associated Press All-American, and Augustine, the Big Ten tournament most outstanding player.
Williams, who was more intent on stopping Louisville junior sharpshooter Francisco Garcia (2-of-10 for a season-low four points) and distributing the ball (nine assists), had just five points, and two came in the waning seconds.
Brown had just eight points and none in the second half. Augustine had just six points to go with 11 rebounds.
Powell and Head more than made up for that when the Illini needed them the most.
Limited to just five minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls, Powell watched as Ingram and Smith helped the Illini take a tenuous 31-28 lead into the locker room.
But he didn't want to be a cheerleader any longer, and Weber knew he needed Powell. The Illini hadn't been aggressively attacking Louisville's 2-3 zone, settling for too many 3-pointers. They made just 6-of-19 from long-range during the opening half.
"Coach said it's time to get going, and I just really prayed for the Lord to really give us strength, like I always do; to just give me confidence to get out there and just play at a high level," said Powell, a minister.
Louisville (33-5), ranked No.4 but only a No.4 seed, stayed close to the Illini throughout, scoring the first five of the second half to lead 33-31 and trailing just 50-49 after junior guard Taquan Dean hit a 3-pointer with 10:24 left. But Powell, who fell one point shy of his career high, answered with a followup layin after Head kept the ball alive. Head hit consecutive 3-pointers. Head then fed Powell for a short baseline jumper, and suddenly, Illini had complete control, 60-49. That brought the large contingent of Illini fans among the announced crowd of 47,754 at the Edward Jones Dome to their feet.
"I think their play just showed that they were leaders," Augustine said.
The Cardinals, who overcame a 20-point first-half deficit against West Virginia to reach the Final Four for the first time since it won the 1986 title, didn't have another rally in them.
"(Powell) just caught fire in the second half, and Luther Head caught fire," Louisville senior forward Ellis Myles said. Powell left the court pointing skyward to Jesus.
The rest of the Illini pointed to Powell, Head and the other seniors.