ROSEMONT, Ill. - Containing Deron Williams is no easy feat. When backcourt mate Dee Brown is on his game, too, playing Illinois is anything but a fair fight.
Williams and Brown gave upstart Wisconsin-Milwaukee all that it could handle and then some Thursday night, combining for 42 points, 10 assists and some pesky defense to lead Illinois to a 77-63 victory and a spot in the Chicago Regional finals.
“They were knocking down shots. They were playing defense,” Roger Powell Jr. said. “That’s what we needed.”
Williams scored 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting, and also had eight assists. Brown scored 15 of his 21 from 3-point range, was 7-of-12, and had two assists and two steals. Anytime the Illini needed a basket, a pass or a turnover, one — or both — of them was there.
“We had to play our best basketball tonight. We didn’t,” UWM coach Bruce Pearl said. “They had a lot to do with it.”
The rest of the Illini weren’t too shabby, either. Illinois shot 53 percent, and all five starters finished in double figures. Powell and Luther Head had 12 each, and James Augustine had a double-double for the third straight game with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
The top-seeded Illini (35-1) will play Arizona on Saturday for a chance to go to their first Final Four since 1989. Arizona beat Oklahoma State 79-78.
“It’s wonderful,” Brown said. “Our main goal was to get to the Final Four and win a national championship. Getting to the Elite Eight is a great accomplishment. We’ve got to just keep playing hard.”
UWM (26-6) was hoping to make some history of its own and be the first No. 12 seed to knock off a No. 1. Joah Tucker did his part, scoring a career-high 32 points. But he was essentially a one-man offense. UWM shot 39 percent, and leading scorer Ed McCants was 4-of-17 overall for 13 points.
Illinois forced the Panthers into 12 turnovers while committing only nine.
“They have three, four, maybe five NBA players that are so unselfish,” UMW’s Mark Pancratz said. “Anytime we felt we elevated our game a little bit, they just took it to another level.”
The Illini got some payback, too, for their fans who are still harboring a grudge against Pearl for the role he played in a recruiting scandal some 15 years ago. Pearl gave the NCAA a tape of a secretly recorded phone call in 1989, touching off a 16-month investigation. Illinois was cleared of the most serious violations, but had to skip the 1991 postseason.
Pearl said earlier this week he expected a hostile reception, and he got it. The Illinois fans booed him loudly and long when he was introduced. The UWM fans were boisterous, but there weren’t enough of them to drown out the thousands of Illini faithful who’d packed the Allstate Arena and made it a virtual home game.
“I thought the fans were terrific from both teams,” Pearl said. “You think this is the first building I’ve been booed in?”
And the fans’ treatment was nothing compared to what Williams and Brown did to the Panthers.
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