By: Travis Thayer (@TheTravisThayer, @HalfGameBack)
Eight years ago the Illinois Fighting Illini started their “March to the Arch” campaign in Indianapolis. I remember sitting in the second level of the RCA Dome anxiously awaiting a first round matchup between the Illini and the Farleigh Dickinson Knights. The matchup had nothing to do with my excitement, it was all based on seeing the best college basketball team I have ever seen. Earlier in the season I was lucky enough to see Illinois take on Adam Morrison and the Gonzaga Bulldogs at a sold out Conseco Fieldhouse. Adam Morrison had been a player of the year candidate, but he was no match for the fast paced, high flying Illini. The Illini ran the Zags out of the building, and that was the day I started to believe this was the best team I had ever saw. Fast forward back to the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The Illini rolled through their first two games against Farleigh Dickinson and Nevada. That was expected, but what they did a week later in the Elite 8 finally convinced me that this team was the greatest I’ve seen.
Down 15, with 4:05 to go
It was March 26, 2005 and the game was being played at All-State Arena (Formally the Rosemont Horizon) in Rosemont, Illinois. By all accounts this was a partisan crowd for the home Illini. There was no way that Arizona was going to come into a hostile environment so far away from home, and take down the mighty Illini. With 9:05 to go in the second half, Arizona held only a five point lead. For the next five minutes, Mustafa Shakur, Channing Frye, Salim Stoudamire, Hassan Adams, and Jawann McClellan helped extend that lead to 15. The largest deficit the Illini faced all year was nine points to Purdue. The Illini were dead in the water. Their near perfect season was over. Then Deron Williams made a three, then Luther Head hit another. Dee Brown puts in a two point bucket off an offensive rebound, and then Luther Head steals the ball and lays it in. All the sudden it is 77-70 with only 1:46 to go. Still, the doubt is in the minds of the Illini faithful – seven points is still too much to overcome against a very good Arizona team. After the timeout Jawann McClellan makes 1 out of 2 from the free throw line. Deron Williams answers with a two point field goal to cut the lead to six. That bucket was quickly erased by Shakur after two more free throws. There is now only a minute left until Illinois’ season is over. Then Luther Head nails a deep three – these guys just won’t go away. The crowd starts to come alive, and the roof nearly blows off the stadium when Dee Brown steals the ball from Shakur at mid-court and cuts the lead to three with a lay-up. Oh my – Arizona is imploding – they are going to blow a 15 point lead in four minutes. Arizona then inbounds under their own basket after a timeout, and wouldn’t you know it Illinois steals the ball. Dee Brown finds Deron Williams on the right wing where he takes one dribble to his left, and pulls up for three… Tie ballgame. At that point it became clear to me that this was a team of destiny. Deron Williams and Luther Head were just too much for Arizona to handle in overtime, and Illinois was on their way to the Final Four.
The word epic is overused, but in this case it is appropriate. The Illinois Fighting Illini’s comeback was historic, and it is something that has been forgotten. A National Championship would have gave this game a lasting image. The game between Illinois and Arizona is what the NCAA Tournament is all about, but we tend to forget about those who didn’t become champions. In my mind the 2005 Illinois team is the greatest team I’ve ever seen, and they may just be the greatest team to never win the big dance. And this is proof that the greatest teams may not always win, but they almost always do something to be remembered by those who are truly watching.