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Ten years, two kids and an uncountable number of head hairs ago, I plopped down on the couch, turned on the tube and witnessed arguably the single greatest NCAA Tournament Elite Eight game this century, a transcendent battle that still resonates with many casual and dedicated fans today.
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Arizona/Illinois. Allstate Arena. Chicago. March 26, 2005.
It was a clash of basketball titans. The Wildcats, the No. 3 seed led by legendary silver fox Lute Olsen, were loaded with future NBA talent – Channing Frye, Hasaan Adams, Salim Stoudamire and Mustafa Shakur. They blazed a trail to the Midwest Regional Final by dismantling Utah St. and UAB while sneaking by a fiery three-point shooting club from Stillwater, Oklahoma St.
Meanwhile their nemesis, No. 1 seed Illinois coached by Bruce Weber, was 35-1 and the college basketball media darling that year. Its charismatic leader Dee Brown, who graced Sports Illustrated’s tournament issue, was the face of the franchise. His trademark headband and jersey-pops were emulated by people, both young and old, far and wide. His quiet, yet highly effective, backcourt partner Deron Williams provided the smooth, dishing, scoring and defending like few others. Luther Head, James Augustine and “Reverend” Roger Powell, meanwhile, instilled an unrelenting toughness, a never-quit grit that proved invaluable when push came to shove. Similar to the UNLV teams of the early 90s, the ’05 Illini swelled with swagger, personality and productivity.
And, as an Illinois graduate, Champaign resident and ardent supporter, I was 100-percent emotionally invested in them.
At the time, I was a completely different individual. No fancy writing awards decorated my office shelf. No Twitter trolls attacked my fantasy perspectives. Few cared what spewed from my mouth. I was a newly married 26-year-old high school teacher who attempted to impart basic social skills and a sense of history on at-risk youth. It was a demanding job that yielded only occasional fruits. Communication gaps were common. Student attendance was problematic. However, that team bridged differences between people and brought the entire community together, my classroom included.
I relished every moment ...
When the game tipped, I had no idea what incredible drama was about to unfold. Taking in the action at my humble abode among family and friends, I soaked up the first half of a nip-and-tuck affair. In front of a very partisan crowd, Arizona kept pace with Illinois throughout the opening frame, exchanging one blow after another with the heavyweight. Frye and Adams were brilliant. The Illini’s lead at halftime was 38-36.
Then the ship slipped into the abyss.
After the two Goliaths slugged it out over the second half’s first 11 minutes, Arizona ratcheted up the pressure. The Wildcats, practically undisturbed on offense, scored at will netting over 60 percent from the field. Frye’s back-breaking three built what seemed to be an insurmountable 15-point lead. Four minutes remained.
In my living room, the once jubilant mood turned somber. It was though a funeral was taking place. Months of elation, it seemed, would soon be buried. Everyone was stone silent. Sadness set in. The magical season couldn’t end like this. Could it?
Indeed it did not.
In what’s known in locales outside of Tucson as ‘The Comeback,’ Illinois rose from the ashes, scratched and clawed and somehow, someway changed the entire complexity of the game in the blink of an eye. Steals, breakaways, timely threes – bit by bit the deficit whittled down to single digits. With 40 seconds remaining, Arizona had the ball, up only three. Jay Bilas, who provided color for CBS that night, said the Illini exhibited “the heart of a champion.” The fans’ roar inside the old Rosemont was deafening. Bill Murray, among the sea of Orange and Blue in the stands, lost his mind (WATCH IT HERE).
Under the roof of the Evans household, a similar emotional upswing was underway. Despair gave way to optimism. Regretful booze concoctions were swallowed to calm nerves. Was this really happening?!
On that possession, an awe-inspiring three became the stuff of legend. After a Jack Ingram-forced turnover, Williams caught a feed from Brown, curled off a screen, dribbled once, fired and splashed.
A joyful exuberance matched only by my wedding day and birth of two children overtook. Extremities went numb. It was unbelievable. To draw even, Illinois scored 20 points in four minutes, 12 points in 50 seconds. The historic comeback was nearly complete.
In the extra session, the Illini established a six-point lead, but the ‘Cats showed they still owned lives. Credit to their resiliency, they fought tooth and nail falling short on their final possession. Adams' desperation three at the buzzer rocketed off the backboard.
The memories of that night are forever stained on my brain. This time every year, I relive the game through the power of DVR. One can only hope this year’s Elite Eight gifts viewers similar thrills and chills.
Bring on the excitement. Bring on new goosebumps. Bring on the Elite Eight.
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