ST. LOUIS (AP)—Staring into the sea of orange in the stands, the Illinois players raised their forefingers high above their heads. The No. 1 team in the country needs just one more win, and 100 years of waiting for a championship will be over.
Roger Powell Jr. and Luther Head scored 20 points apiece and sparked the Illini to a 72-57 win over Louisville on Saturday, a semifinal success that made the best season in a century of Illinois basketball that much better.
“We put April 4th on the board six weeks ago and we are playing April 4th in the national championship,” coach Bruce Weber said. “We are very excited.”
With the win, the Illini (37-1) tied the single-season NCAA record for victories, and kept the coach’s magical bus ride going straight through the title game Monday against North Carolina, 87-71 winners over Michigan State in the other semifinal.
The Illini, ranked first in the country since December, got the tough test they expected from the Cardinals (33-5) and Rick Pitino, who made history by taking his third different program to the Final Four.
But Pitino and the Cardinals are going home, thanks to the scoring of Powell and Head and a defensive effort from everyone that helped the Illini shut down Francisco Garcia and pull away in the second half.
“I think the key, the first key, was the defense,” Weber said.
A close second was the shooting of Powell and Head.
After Louisville took its only lead of the game, 33-31, early in the second, Powell scored nine straight points for Illinois to grab back the lead and establish the Illini’s dominance inside.
A little later, with a 50-49 lead, Powell sandwiched a layup and a jumper around two 3-pointers by Head as part of an 11-0 run that made the deficit too big to overcome.
Head made his first four 3-point attempts during the second-half streak. Powell wound up just four points short of his career high despite playing only five minutes in the first half because of foul trouble.
“He went through a stretch where he just took the game in his hands and he just took on the scoring,” Head said.
This felt a lot like a home game for the Illini, whose “Orange Krush” fan base has followed them around this tournament when they played in Indianapolis, Chicago and now St. Louis—all just a bus ride away.
Weber’s family, still grieving the death of the coach’s mother three weeks ago, also has tagged along to witness up close what likely will go down as the best season in the program’s long, rather unstoried history.
This year’s group has done it unselfishly, not thinking much about stats or who gets the credit. This game was another example of how it works.
Head’s backcourt mates, Deron Williams and Dee Brown, each struggled from the field, shooting a combined 5-for-17, and just 3-for-14 from 3-point range.
But, as usual, they did the little things. Williams, who scored Illinois’ first and last bucket of the game, finished with nine assists and five rebounds to go with his five points. Brown ran the point and took care of the ball, adding four assists.
The guards also put some major `D’ on Louisville.
Williams guarded Garcia, the Cardinals’ best player most of the season, and Garcia finished with four points to close the season with two subpar games. This one came on top of the come-from-behind win over West Virginia in which he fouled out and watched the last nine minutes from the bench.
“If it’s a good player, he really takes pride in stopping them,” Weber said.
Taquan Dean and Larry O’Bannon picked Garcia up last time, but couldn’t do it again. Dean never found his touch, going 4-for-15 and only making two 3-pointers as part of a 12-point night. O’Bannon went 4-for-10 for 12 points.
Forward Ellis Myles led the Cardinals with 17 points, but that was the problem: Louisville simply doesn’t win much when it has to look to its forwards for the bulk of the scoring.
“It was difficult,” Pitino said. “We didn’t pitch a perfect game, but we hung in there as long as we could. We faulted to a better basketball team.”
Pitino put on his usual show—stomping, screaming, trying to coax more out of a team that has largely been regarded as an overmatched underdog on many of its stops this year.
But unlike last week, when the Cardinals rallied from 20 points down for a win over West Virginia and the eighth trip to the Final Four in program history, there was no adjustment Pitino could make.
His team was getting beaten on the boards—38-26—and in the end, Illinois had too many good players in too many spots for the Cardinals to overcome.
“Being disappointed is when you get knocked out in the first round,” said Pitino, coaching in his fifth Final Four. “When you go to the Final Four, if there’s any disappointment, then you can’t appreciate the game as you should.”
After O’Bannon scored five straight to open the second half and give Louisville its only lead, Powell spotted up for a 3-pointer to grab the lead back. On the next possession, he shot an open 3, which he missed, but grabbed the rebound himself for a two-handed jam.
“It was just bouncing my way,” Powell explained.
He mixed lay-ups, short, spinning jumpers, another 3-pointer and one other putback of a teammate’s miss.
Leading 64-55 and with both teams unable to score for nearly two minutes, it was Powell who layed in another teammate’s miss to make it 66-55 with 2:30 left and begin the celebration.
When the buzzer sounded, several Illini stuck their forefingers in the air and pointed toward the crowd—needing one more win to fashion the perfect ending to what Weber has called a “fairytale season.”
“I was excited when … it got under a minute,” Weber said. “I was excited because I knew we were in the championship game, and that’s been our goal.”