Illini Wonk
Monday, April 04, 2005
  Illinois drops NCAA Championship to North Carolina
What a game. What heartbreak. After a lackluster first half, the Illinois Fighting Illini battled back to tie the game at 70 with 2:42 to play on a three-pointer by Luther Head. They would not score again in the game and drop a 75-70 decision to the North Carolina Tar Heels.

As they said on SportsCenter after tonight, it's a game of inches. Illinois' last four three-point attempts all hit the heel of the rim, perhaps the result of over-compensating for tired legs. If one of those four drop, the outcome might have been different. On the other end of the court, North Carolina wins when a wild miss by Rashad McCants is batted in by Marvin Williams with 1:28 on the clock. If the Illini grab the rebound, the outcome might have been different.

Illinois showed incredible poise to come back from 15 down to tie the game in regulation for the second time this season. For Illini fans it hurts all the more because, after such a special season, you expected this team to make the big shot one more time. But, it wasn't to be and the best season in the history of Illinois basketball came up one win short. They were valiant in the way they fell back and then attacked once more, giving it everything they had said Mike Downey in the Chicago Tribune. Also writing in the Trib, Rick Morrissey said Remember them like this. Remember the second half, and Skip Myslenski said the Illinois comeback was truly the show of shows.

Illinois had such a large deficit to make up because they had a poor first half. Their shot selection was terrible as they continuously forced up shots early in the shot-clock. On defense they had at least three mental mistakes that all led to easy baskets for UNC: two on out-of-bounds plays and one dunk that Sean May beat the team down the floor for on a missed free throw. But by far the worst play of the first half was a three-on-one break that saw Illinois settled for a three-point attempt rather than take the ball to the hole.

Much of the post-game commentary on ESPN faulted the Illini for attempting 40 three-pointers, but that was not what lost them the game. Had they made 13 instead of 12 they might have been cutting down the nets earlier tonight. They took a lot of good shots from behind the arc and missed a few bad shots that they took inside it. Those same commentators who scolded Illinois for so many three-point attempts also neglected to mention that it was the makes from behind the arc that got them back into the game.

When you look at the shooting percentages of the two teams, it's amazing that Illinois was even in the game. UNC shot 52 percent from the floor and 56 percent behind the three-point line to Illinois' 39 and 30 respectively (complete box score here). What kept them in the game was their trademark ball-handling which saw them post 18 assists against only 8 turnovers. They also outrebounded the larger Tar Heels 37-34.

Clearly, Illinois lost the game to Sean May. His 16 points on 10 of 11 shooting was more than Illinois could handle. The refs may not have cost Illinois the game, but it was frustrating to watch how they called the fouls on May. The UNC big man bumped and pushed the entire night, but when Illinois tried to give back what they were getting, the refs found their whistles. Illini Wonk was shocked to look at the box score after the game to discover that May had only one foul while James Augustine fouled out and Jack Ingram earned four.

As Illini Wonk said in a previous post, it's been a magical season for the Fighting Illini. The Illini tie three other teams for the most wins in NCAA men's basketball history to win 37 games in a season. "I already think it was a successful season," star guard Deron Williams said after the defeat. But it leaves a bad taste in your mouth not being able to cut down the nets [as the victor]." Mark Tupper has more on his blog. On another positive note, the Illini won the Pontiac Game Changing Performance for their win over Arizona, earning the school $100,000 for their general scholarship fund.

As for next year, the Illinois Fighting Illini open their season against South Dakota State University. As for a repeat performance, Marlen Garcia says The Illini will have their hands full just trying to win a third straight Big Ten title. In Garcia's account, Dee Brown is a probable return and Augustine is a lock. In case you missed it, Illini Wonk recently posted on the NBA future of the current Illini.

Thanks certainly are in order for the most memorable Illinois team in Illini Wonk's memory. This team was a joy to follow and it's hard to imagine that another could duplicate it any time soon. Also, thanks to all of you readers. I'll post a little bit here and there during the off-season, but I can use the break too. For now, Illini Wonk is signing off.
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