Illini Legends, Lists & Lore: 2001 Illinois-Kansas NCAA tournament game

Mar. 23—Twenty-three years ago on Saturday — March 23, 2001 — coach Bill Self's top-seeded Illini men's basketball team got 30 points from sophomore guard Frank Williams and advanced to its first Elite Eight berth in a dozen years.

Two-point losers to Indiana in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, the Big Ten champs entered first- and second-round games of the NCAA Tournament play in Dayton, Ohio, with a 24-7 record. Illinois' first-round match-up on March 16 against Northwestern State was a complete rout (96-54 win) and its second-round game against Charlotte was only slightly more challenging (79-61 win).

Those victories set up a Sweet 16 battle at the Alamodome in San Antonio against Roy Williams' 26-6 Kansas Jayhawks, equally dominant winners in Dayton against Cal State Northridge (99-75) and Syracuse (87-58).

KU's starting lineup of sophomores Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison and Drew Gooden, junior Jeff Boschee and senior Kenny Gregory was thought to be a solid equivalent to Self's fivesome of Williams, Cory Bradford, Marcus Griffin, Sergio McClain and Brian Cook. Similar lineups a season earlier in a mid-December game at Chicago had resulted in an 84-70 Illini victory, so the Jayhawks had the edge in incentive for this one.

Playing in front of nearly 29,000 fans, the 2001 rematch began. Illinois set the tone early with stifling defense and aggressive rebounding. Griffin's play was a bit too aggressive, picking up two fouls in the first three minutes and a third midway through the first half. Despite Griffin spending much of the opening 20 minutes on the bench, overall solid play helped lead Illinois lead at the break, 41-29.

Though the Illini never trailed in the game, Kansas drew to within five points with five minutes left in the game. It would have been closer had the Jayhawks been able to convert at the free-throw line, but making only 18 of their 35 attempts at the line cost Kansas dearly.

While Williams' end-of-the-game scoring heroics saw him wind up with a career-best 30 points, Illinois' bench deserved just as much of the credit for Illinois' victory. Reserves Lucas Johnson (15 points) and Damir Krupalija (seven points) were significant contributors as Illinois prevailed, 80-64.

"I didn't think it was the prettiest of games," Self said after the 16-point victory, "but the bench was great."

Two days later, the Illini were pitted against Arizona in the regional final. However, Illinois fell by six points to the Wildcats, 87-81. Illinois fouled out six players, and Arizona set an all-time NCAA tournament record by converting 43 of its 56 free throws in its victory.

The Wildcats would go on to beat Michigan State by 19 points in the Final Four, but fell to Duke by 10 in the national championship game.

Illini Birthdays

Saturday: Joseph Bertrand, basketball (33)

Sunday: Mike Murphy, football (64)

Monday: Theresa Grentz, basketball coach

Tuesday: Bill Nowak, football (77)

Wednesday: Dave Birky, football (62)

Thursday: Cristy Chapman Uhrig, volleyball

Friday: Dino Pollock, football (56)