ST. LOUIS - Staring into the sea of orange in the stands, the Illinois players raised their forefingers high above their heads. The No. 1 team in the country needs just one more win, and 100 years of waiting for a championship will be over.
Roger Powell Jr. and Luther Head scored 20 points apiece and sparked the Illini to a 72-57 win over Louisville on Saturday, a semifinal success that made the best season in a century of Illini basketball that much better.
“We put April 4th on the board six weeks ago and we are playing April 4th in the national championship,” coach Bruce Weber said. “We are very excited.”
With the win, the Illini (37-1) tied the single-season NCAA record for victories, and kept the coach’s magical bus ride going straight through the title game Monday against North Carolina, 87-71 winners over Michigan State in the other semifinal.
But Pitino and the Cardinals are going home, thanks to the scoring of Powell and Head and a defensive effort from everyone that helped the Illini shut down Francisco Garcia and pull away in the second half.
“I think the key, the first key, was the defense,” Weber said.
A close second was the shooting of Powell and Head.
After Louisville took its only lead of the game, 33-31, early in the second, Powell scored nine straight points for Illinois to grab back the lead and establish the Illini’s dominance inside.
A little later, with a 50-49 lead, Powell sandwiched a layup and a jumper around two 3-pointers by Head as part of an 11-0 run that made the deficit too big to overcome.
Head made his first four 3-point attempts during the second-half streak. Powell wound up just four points short of his career high despite playing only five minutes in the first half because of foul trouble.
“He went through a stretch where he just took the game in his hands and he just took on the scoring,” Head said.
This felt a lot like a home game for the Illini, whose “Orange Krush” fan base has followed them around this tournament when they played in Indianapolis, Chicago and now St. Louis — all just a bus ride away.
Weber’s family, still grieving the death of the coach’s mother three weeks ago, also has tagged along to witness up close what likely will go down as the best season in the program’s long, rather unstoried history.
This year’s group has done it unselfishly, not thinking much about stats or who gets the credit. This game was another example of how it works.
Head’s backcourt mates, Deron Williams and Dee Brown, each struggled from the field, shooting a combined 5-for-17, and just 3-for-14 from 3-point range.
But, as usual, they did the little things. Williams, who scored Illinois’ first and last bucket of the game, finished with nine assists and five rebounds to go with his five points. Brown ran the point and took care of the ball, adding four assists.
The guards also put some major ‘D’ on Louisville.
Williams guarded Garcia, the Cardinals’ best player most of the season, and Garcia finished with four points to close the season with two subpar games. This one came on top of the come-from-behind win over West Virginia in which he fouled out and watched the last nine minutes from the bench.
“If it’s a good player, he really takes pride in stopping them,” Weber said.
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