CHAMPAIGN – How do you know that a college basketball team is good? If they get a nickname, that’s often a sign.
The 1988-1989 University of Illinois men’s basketball squad was strong enough to earn their own monicker that would not only stick for that season but define the team in program history.
“The Flyin’ Illini.”
The name was given to them by famed ESPN college basketball commentator Dick Vitale during that season, and it has stuck ever since. A number of reunions have been held for this once-in-a-generation team that ended the program’s 37-year Final Four drought.
What made the group unique is that head coach Lou Henson recruited the team entirely from the State of Illinois. Key contributors Lowell Hamilton (Providence St. Mel), Marcus Liberty (King), and Nick Anderson (Simeon) were all natives of Chicago. Kendall Gill was from nearby Matteson (Rich Central) and Kenny Battle from Aurora (West) while Stephen Bardo hailed from downstate Carbondale.
Had he not been killed in a shooting before the start of his senior season at Simeon in 1984, and if he’d not gone to play professionally early, Chicago prep star Ben “Benji” Wilson would have been a senior on this team.
As expected, with a team heavy on upperclassmen, Illinois got off to a very fast start. They won their first 17 games and showed off their high-flying offensive style, scoring at least 90 points in ten of those contests and 100 in six of them.
That included a 103-92 double overtime victory over No. 17 Georgia Tech that earned the Illini the nation’s No. 1 ranking. It did come at a price, however, as Gill broke a bone in his foot and missed the next 12 games.
The Illini would go onto lose three of their next four games after that, but they found their stride in the final month, finishing with nine wins in their last ten Big Ten contests.
That included one of the iconic moments in program history against Indiana on March 5th, when Anderson hit a 30-foot three-pointer at the buzzer to knock off eventual Big Ten champion Indiana 70-67 at Assembly Hall in Bloomington.
They’d finish a game behind the Hoosiers for a conference crown, but they still earned a No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region for the NCAA Tournament.
Illinois began their road to the Final Four at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, getting past a competitive McNeese State team in the first round then Ball State by 12 in the second to advance to the Sweet 16.
In another football stadium, this time the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Illinois scored a decisive 83-69 win over Louisville to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 1984. They did so despite Battle being out with a knee injury suffered during a slip on the wet floor in practice the day before and Hamilton, who sprained his right ankle during the win.
Nick Anderson’s 24 points in 35 minutes earned them a date with Syracuse in the Elite Eight.
Battle came back after his injury and delivered the performance of a lifetime, scoring 28 points on 12-of-17 shooting from the field against the Orangemen. Anderson once again scored 24 points as the Illini held on for an 89-86 win to qualify for their first Final Four since 1952.
Now in Seattle’s Kingdome, Illinois would meet a common foe in the National Semifinal: The Michigan Wolverines.
The Illini had defeated Michigan twice during the regular season by double digits, and on March 11th beat them by 16 points on the road in Ann Arbor. But this would be a different contest as the Wolverines were on a hot streak under interim head coach Steve Fisher.
It was tight throughout and was tied at 81 in the final ten seconds when Michigan grabbed the lead for good on an infamous play in Illini history. Terry Mills fired a three-pointer from the corner but it was off the mark, but Sean Higgins was able to beat Anderson for the rebound and put in the game-winner with a second to go.
The 83-81 defeat was a brutal end to what had been an incredible season for the “Flyin’ Illini,” who fell two points short of advancing to the school’s first NCAA Championship Game. It would be 16 years before the Illini would finally accomplish that feat, but the program is still searching for their first national title.
Yet the way that team played, the excitement they generated, and the fun they had in reaching the Final Four lives on three decades later.
Even without a crown, the “Flyin’ Illini” remain the toast of Champaign.