It looked so grim.
With less than four minutes to go, in a game being played just a couple hours north of the University of Illinois campus, the No. 1-ranked Illini were on the verge of fishtailing into a ditch, trailing Arizona, 75-60, in the Midwest Regional Final of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The winner would move on to the Final Four in St. Louis. The loser would be found at the bottom of a bucket of tears.
A crowd of 16,957 packed into the Allstate Arena in Rosemont on that March 26, 2005 and most of them were decked out in orange and blue. But down by 15, they needed a gift from the basketball gods.
That’s what the greatest game in Illini history is remembered for, for the miracle way in which Illinois rallied back to edge Arizona 90-89 in overtime.
When it was over – after heroic plays by Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, Roger Powell and Jack Ingram – victorious coach Bruce Weber danced onto the court in his sweat-soaked shirt and burst into tears.
“What an unbelievable game,” the breathless Illini coach bellowed in a raspy voice shredded by trying to scream over a deafening crowd.
“My mother was looking down on me and our team tonight.”
Weber had been riding an exhausting roller coaster of emotions since his mother became ill outside the United Center March 11 at the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago. She died later that night and Weber had bawled into his hands prior to Illinois’ game the very next day.
If Bruce Weber’s mom was, in fact, looking down on this game, she saw one for the history books.
Illinois made play after play while chipping away at the Arizona lead. Dee Brown and Luther Head scored off steals. Roger Powell rattled in a dunk. Jack Ingram — playing when James Augustine found foul trouble — was an unsung hero.
But it was Deron Williams who made the most noise, scoring 14 of Illinois’ final 30 points including a 3-pointer that tied the game and triggered an explosion by Illini fans that seemed to shake the building.
Williams made millions that evening (he elevated his NBA draft status and was the No. 3 overall pick) with 22 points, 10 assists and stout defense on Arizona’s Salim Stoudamire, who some viewed as the best shooter in the country.
Ranked No. 1 in the nation, the Illini survived and took a 36-1 record to St. Louis for the Final Four.
“Our kids had tremendous heart,” Weber said. “It’s a game that will be shown many, many, many times as a classic. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. I’m just glad it happened to us and we weren’t on the other end.”
Actor/comedian Bill Murray, who became a kind of Illini mascot on their post-season journey, was delirious behind the team bench as the comeback unfolded. More than once he slapped his forehead as if to say, “Can you believe this?”
No, most people could not.
Best damn game I ever covered.