Illini advance with faith restored by an unlikely savior

Published April 3, 2005

ST. LOUIS - By night's end, the minister had worked up a sweat.

He had grabbed everyone's attention in the previous 40 minutes and now offered a parting message of praise. Head tilted back, arms raised, he used his index fingers to point skyward. Thousands watched and cheered.

He was, you might say, preaching to the choir.

Roger Powell is a Pentecostal minister. A frequent guest in the pulpit at the Mount Zion Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Joliet, Ill., where his parents listen to his sermons and worshipers follow his words.

Roger Powell is also an Illinois basketball player. A senior forward who does much of the grunt work on a team of stars.

Someday soon he may be in the business of saving souls.

On Saturday night he settled for rescuing a season.

Illinois beat Louisville 72-57 in a game that was far closer than the result suggests. For almost 30 minutes the Illini were in danger of ruining the greatest season the program has known.

Instead, Powell took over just when things were most bleak. He had the night of his life in the biggest game of his career.

"He just took the game in his hands," Illinois guard Luther Head said.

His head is shaved and practically buffed. His upper body is thick and most definitely buff. He was wearing a God Strong bracelet on his right wrist Friday and is in the habit of offering another one to an opponent before every game.

Everything about Powell feels engaging. From the generosity of his grin to the profoundness of his calling.

He wears his devotion on his sleeve, and his shoes too. Across the toes and down the sides of his sneakers are citations for his favorite Bible verses.

Isaiah 41:10 is next to Matthew 9:26.

Galatians 5:22 bumps up to Proverbs 11:2.

He is a walking testimony to his faith.

It hasn't always been that way. Although raised in the church by his parents, Powell was something of a troublemaker as a child. He was constantly getting in fights and being moved from school to school.

He settled down as a teenager and has been a model student at Illinois. Still, there was something missing. A restlessness in his life.

Last summer he told his mother he felt God was calling him. He began training at the family church in Joliet and became a minister in October.

He cleared it with Illinois coach Bruce Weber and began using his free weekends to preach. There was a time when he thought he might declare early for the NBA draft but, instead, devoted himself to his senior season.

Powell wrote "Final Four" on a Post-it before the season, then added Philippians 4:13 beneath it and stuck it on his bathroom mirror.

"It means, "I can do all things through him who gives me strength,' " Powell said. "I looked at that day in and day out. To see it actually come true now is awesome."

It took a defining effort by Powell in the second half Saturday night to make sure it would come true.

The Illini were in trouble. Do not doubt that.

They were out of rhythm on offense, throwing up 3-point shots at a ridiculous pace. They were ineffective on defense, surviving only because Louisville missed an obscene number of easy baskets.

The score was close, but it felt like Illinois was losing.

It was seven minutes past intermission, and none of the hotshot guards had contributed a second-half point. Not Head, their leading scorer. Not Sports Illustrated cover boy Dee Brown. Not soon-to-be lottery pick Deron Williams.

The team built around perimeter players was going to need its 6-foot-6 forward to defy an aggressive Louisville zone.

Chasing Illinois from the game's first possession, the Cardinals took their first lead at 33-31. In the next two minutes Powell would get two rebounds and score seven. He scored 12 of the Illini's first 14 of the half. Louisville kept it close for a short time but never led again.

"He caught fire in the second half," Louisville senior Ellis Myles said. "That really was the difference in the game."

A player who had never scored more than 24 in his first 126 games scored 18 in the second half. He hit three-pointers. He followed up his own miss with a thunderous dunk. He shut down Louisville's inside game on the other end of the floor.

And when it was nearly done, when the clock was counting down and the Illinois fans were calling his name, Powell looked heavenward and raised his fingers in celebration.

"I was pointing to Jesus," Powell said. "I was really thankful."

In a time of crisis, you turn to the source of your faith.

In the case of Illinois, that means Roger Powell.