The Illini were not going to make it to St. Louis and a Final Four that they had all but embraced as their birthright. The scoreboard said so. With 54 seconds left to play, Illinois was down 80-72 to Arizona, and the crowd in the Allstate Arena, practically the Illini's home floor, was hushed.
But then a miraculous 15 seconds was visited upon the Illini on Saturday night, and the college basketball gods reached out and touched their three guards: Luther Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams. The trio had carried the team through a 36-game journey in which 35 games had ended with victory.
Now they needed a shortcut, and it was Head who initiated the path with a 3-point bomb that cut the Wildcats' lead to 80-75. As Hassan Adams of Arizona tried to cross halfcourt, Williams and Brown pounced on him. Williams stripped the ball and kicked it to Brown, who streaked in for a layup.
It was 80-77, with 46 seconds left. The Illini scrambled into a full-court press, and in an instant, Jack Ingram was batting an inbounds pass loose from Arizona's Channing Frye. The ball bounded into Williams' hands; he squared up in the corner behind the 3-point arc and fired.
The ball swished through the net. Illinois and Arizona were knotted at 80-80, and 39 seconds were left in the game.
When the Wildcats' Salim Stoudamire was unable to duplicate the game-winning heroics that sank Oklahoma State in the semifinals of the Chicago Regional, the game was heading into overtime.
Once there, Illinois hardly needed a miracle. It had Williams, who drained two more 3-pointers. Along with Head and Brown, he electrified the crowd that had been silent only moments earlier with a 90-89 overtime victory in the regional final that earned the Illini a trip to St. Louis after all.
"What an unbelievable game," said coach Bruce Weber, whose Illini were trailing by 15 with 4:04 remaining. "Our kids didn't quit. They got down 15 points in the second half. It was just crazy."
Arizona coach Lute Olson and his players had made it clear that they were happy to have been shipped here to take on Illinois, the top-seeded team in the NCAA tournament. Olson had already made four trips to the Final Four and had won a national title in 1997. The Wildcats (30-7) were talented and loose.
"We respect them," Olson, the 70-year-old coach, said before the game, "but we have no fear of them."
In fact, the last time Illinois and Arizona had faced each other in the tournament was 2001 in another regional final. The second-seeded Wildcats defeated Illinois, 87-81, to earn a trip to the Final Four.
In the first half, the Wildcats withstood a barrage of 3-pointers by Brown and Head, some rim-rattling dunks by Roger Powell and an acrobatic alley-oop from Head to Williams that had the Illinois faithful in hysterics. But as the buzzer sounded, Arizona was behind, 38-36.
Then Arizona unleashed an 11-3 run to open the second half, taking a 47-41 lead that was capped by a 3-pointer from the top of the key by Stoudamire. In the first half, under the withering defense of Williams, Stoudamire had four shots and two points.
Suddenly, the game was on more than even terms and memories of 2001 were resurrected by a fresh bunch of players. Adams, a junior forward, and Musafa Shakur, a sophomore guard, were coming up with steals and hitting their jump shots. Adams finished with 21 points and five assists; Shakur had 12 points, four assists and two steals.