ATLANTA – Leave it to March to weave storylines that scream Hollywood, yet really only end up intersecting by chance.
That’s what went down over the course of 80 minutes of basketball in the South Region semifinals at Philips Arena, when a few Illinois connections came together to create quite a story leading up to the Elite Eight.
Earlier in the night, Loyola became the first Division I men’s basketball team in the State of Illinois to make it to a regional final since 2005 when they knocked off Nevada 69-68. That’s enough to get basketball fans in Chicago fired up, but then came the second game, where a former character in the state’s hoops landscape came to the forefront again.
Bruce Weber’s Kansas State team upset fifth-seeded Kentucky in the second game of the South Region semis on Thursday night 61-58. It’s the first trip for the school in eight years to the Elite Eight and their coach has waited 13 seasons to return.
If you’re a fan of the Orange and Blue of the Illini, you know where this is leading.
Weber, who coached in the last Elite Eight game for a Division I program in the state with Illinois back on March 26, 2005 in a win over Arizona, now faces the most recent team to qualify for the regional final from Illinois on March 24, 2018. Many of those who will tune into Saturday night’s early evening match-up can’t help but remember the connection, whether a current fan of the Illini or a native of Chicago rooting for the Ramblers.
Thirteen years ago, Weber’s Illinois team completed one of the greatest comebacks in tournament history at Allstate Arena against Arizona. Down 15 points with four minutes left, the Illini stormed back to force overtime and eventually won it 90-89 to advance to the Final Four, where they would lose in the National Championship game to North Carolina.
Following that season, however, Illinois has never gotten past the second round of a tournament and Weber was fired after missing the “Big Dance” all together in 2012. Resurfacing at Kansas State the next year, Weber had trouble getting over the same hump, never going past the second round with the Wildcats until 2018.
As the ninth-seed, they beat Creighton and UMBC in Charlotte to qualify for the Sweet 16 where they faced fifth-seeded Kentucky on Thursday. The back-and-fourth battle was tied into the final minute until Barry Brown’s layup with 15 seconds left gave Kansas State the lead with 15 seconds left. Twice Kentucky tried three-pointers to first take the lead and then tie in the final seconds but to no avail.
Weber celebrated with his players after the game, one that was 13 years in the making for the former Illinois head coach, who has his team just one win away from their first National Semifinal since 1964.
“We said we had to fight it out, grind it out, and we did, and now we have a chance to go to the Final Four,” said Weber after the victory, the 25th on the second for the Wildcats. “But it will not be easy because Loyola is a very, very good team. We got to have fun for about 15 minutes tonight, but then we’ve got to get refocused and ready for a chance of a lifetime.”
It’s one that Weber’s had before, here in the State of Illinois, in fact. Now he’ll try to derail the hopes of the next team from the “Land of Lincoln” hoping to take advantage of their moment.