CHAMPAIGN – During the COVID-19 pandemic, where replays of games take the place of live ones, a new generation of college basketball fans are getting to learn all about one of Illinois’ greatest teams.
That’s because the game on March 26, 2005 has been replayed quite a few times over the past few weeks.
In the Chicago Regional Final against Arizona at Allstate Arena, Illinois trailed Arizona by 15 points, and were still down by eight with just over a minute to go. Yet the Illini went on an 8-0 run in 20 seconds to tie the game, force overtime, and eventually win 90-89 to advance to their first Final Four since 1989.
Perhaps that small write up doesn’t do what that 2004-2005 did that night justice, but neither does focusing just on one game. This group, which featured unparalleled chemistry and on-court unity deserves praise for what they did the rest of that year.
This dominant group tore through the regular season with few road blocks, as the triple guard tandem of Dee Brown, Luther Head, and Deron Williams put on a show every night. Along with Roger Powell and James Augustine, they were arguably the best team in program history.
Incredible offensive ball movement in head coach Bruce Weber’s system helped the Illini lead the nation in assists with 727 assists while their 3,002 points were fourth in country.
They made their presence known on a national stage during a Big Ten/ACC Challenge match-up with No. 1 Wake Forest in Champaign. With Assembly Hall decked in orange, Illini completely decimated the Demon Deacons, leading by as much as 32 in the second half before settling with a 91-73 win.
Bruce Weber’s team took the No. 1 spot that day and would hold it the rest of the regular season.
The Illini finished the regular season 29-1 – with their only blemish coming in their final game against Ohio State. Only one time in that stretched were they taken to overtime, but still beat No. 23 Iowa at home 73-68 on January 20th.
Five days later, they delivered a strong performance in beating No. 18 Wisconsin by ten, ending their 38-game home court winning streak. On February 1st, they dominated No. 12 Michigan State in East Lansing, winning 81-68.
They’d finish 15-1 in the conference to win it outright then comfortably captured three Big Ten Tournament games to claim that crown, too.
Illinois would enjoy a tournament road filled with essentially “home” games – with the team playing in Indianapolis, Chicago, and then St. Louis.
They knocked off Farleigh Dickinson and Nevada at the RCA Dome, then beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee before the Arizona comeback in Chicago to reach their first Final Four in 16 years.
Again, as the comeback in the Elite Eight get the attention, the performance against Louisville is unfortunately forgotten. A strong Illini defense suffocated Cardinals leading scorer Francisco Garcia, who was just 2-of-10 from the field with four points, and held Louisville to 38 percent shooting.
Powell had his finest college game as he scored a game-high 20 points along with Head as the Illini picked up a resounding 72-57 win to advance to their first National Championship game.
Unfortunately, Illinois didn’t have enough for one more victory two nights later.
Saddled with foul trouble, Augustine was a non-factor against a dominant Sean May (26 points, 10/11 shooting), who helped North Carolina jump out to as much as a 15-point second half lead. Illinois rallied to tie it at 70, but without their usual prowess from behind the arc (12-40 on three-pointers), the Illini fell by five.
They’d finish 37-2 and leave lasting memories for a fan base that’s still looking for a season to top it 15 years later. Their chemistry was unmatched and made for entertaining basketball that stretched across 39 games – not just the final three minutes of a regional final.