So close, yet...

CHICAGO – Three minutes and twenty-six seconds. Two hundred and six seconds. A little over 250 beats of the heart. That is how far away Arizona was from a Final Four. The Wildcats led by 13 points with just under three and a half minutes to play, but Illinois played like a team of destiny and defeated the Wildcats 90-89 in overtime to advance to St. Louis and a trip to the Final Four.

Depending on your point of view it was either the biggest collapse in Tournament history or the greatest comeback. Arizona led by 15 with 4:04, 13 with 3:24 and eight with 1:03 to play.

It wasn't enough.

"It was ours," said a tearful Mustafa Shakur. "We thought we had it."

In front of 16,957 fans, most of them clad in orange, the Illini did the unthinkable. They outscored the Wildcats 20-5 at the end of regulation and were just one point better in overtime.

Despite the run, the Wildcats had two chances to win it at the end of both regulation and overtime. Each time the Wildcats had the final possession, but unlike the win over Oklahoma State, there were no last second heroics.

Tied at 80, Salim Stoudamire had the ball in his hands. Two nights earlier he buried a pull-up jumper to put the Cats in this position, but against Oklahoma State he was not facing a defender like Deron Williams.

"We were not going to let him beat us," Bruce Weber said of Stoudamire.

The Wildcat senior tried to advance the ball but the Illinois defenders denied him the lane and he kicked to true freshman Jawann McClellan. McClellan got a good look, but the shot was off and Illinois ripped down the rebound.

Arizona got second life. Instead of holding the ball or calling timeout, the Illini tried a heave pass down the court, but Stoudamire intercepted it. He attempted a three, but it was blocked. Adams came up with the loose ball and fired up a desperation shot that came up short.

The Illini did a great job defensively on Stoudamire. For most of regulation Deron Williams got the call. He and Luther Head teamed to hold the high scoring senior to just nine points on 2-13 shooting.

"I thought Williams did a great job on him (Stoudamire)," Lute Olson said. "He made it difficult for him tonight."

The Cats had a chance to win at the end of overtime as well. Just as Illinois showed great resiliency in coming back in regulation, the Wildcats did the same in the extra period. The Wildcats trailed by six with less than two minutes to play, but fought back to get a last chance at the win.

Hassan Adams scored the final five points of overtime, including a three-point play and a put-back with :52 left. The Wildcat got the stop and called timeout to set up a play.

Sadly, this time there would be no last second heroics for Stoudamire. In fact he wouldn't touch the ball. The play was designed to get Hassan Adams the ball and allow him to take his man off the dribble and either get to the hoop, or dish to one of the seniors. Neither happened.

After inbounding the ball to Mustafa Shakur, Adams got the ball on the right wing but cold not penetrate. He picked up his dribble and was in no man's land. Stoudamire attempted to grab a hand-off and Adams was forced to put up an awkward shot which clanked off the left side of the rim.

Shakur was there for a rebound, but by the time he could attempt a shot the Illini were already celebrating.

"Time ran down and I had to put it up," Adams said.

"We'll look at the end of the game for a long from a coaching standpoint," Olson said. "There were a number of things that are going to cause a lot of sleepless nights."

The two last misses were about the only things Adams did not do right. The junior scored 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and added five assists. He served notice that he could be one of the best players in the nation next season.

If he comes back. Adams' play fueled speculation that he may test the NBA Draft waters.

"I don't know what Hassan is going to do," admitted McClellan.

The Illini never quit. Even when things looked bleak they fought back. They proved it was tough to beat the nation's best team in their home state.

"We wouldn't have been able to do it without all of the support and the fans cheering," said Jack Ingram. "I think that the crowd and atmosphere might have intimidated Arizona down the stretch."

The crowd may have played a role, but not as big a role as Deron Williams. The Illini junior had just four points at the 10:00 mark but exploded for 18 over the final 15:00, including two three pointers in overtime and the killer to tie the game at 80 with :39 to play.

McClellan sank two free throws to put the Cats up 14. They would score just three more points before the overtime, all free throws. In that same span, Luther Head drained a three. Dee Brown followed with a put –back on the next possession after Head missed a second three.

The teams traded stops, but after a McClellan block, the Cats coughed up the ball at mid-court and Head streaked for an uncontested lay-in.

Arizona stretched the lead to eight with a foul shot, but Williams answered with a quick lay-in.

Shakur sank two free throws, but Illinois answered with a three by Head. As bad as things were they would get worse.

The Cats still had a three-point lead with 45 seconds left. After a timeout the Cats attempted to inbound the ball, but Jack Ingram got the steal and seconds later Williams drained the three to tie the game.

"He is the foundation of our team," Weber said. "He makes plays and has a great feel for the game."

Anyone who thought NCAA Tournament games had to be slow paced forgot to tell Arizona and Illinois. The early pace was up-tempo and frantic.

The Cats came out in the 1-3-1 and the Illini torched it from behind the arc. After missing their first three pointer Brown and Powell hit back-to-back threes before the Cats could get on the scoreboard.

Arizona settled down defensively, and even went man-to-man less than 3:00 into the contest. Arizona calmed their nerves and went on a 10-0 run, getting four points each from Adams and Radenovic and led 12-8.

Neither team let off the gas. It was Illinois turn next to rattle off a scoring burst. Head nailed two straight threes and reserve Richard McBride drained a third and the top-seed Illini were back on top 17-14.

Illinois surged again a few moments later with a 9-2 run. Brown connected on his second three and after a Frye jumper, followed it up with three straight field goals, including back-to-back dunks by Powell and Williams.

Illinois began eschewing the three and attacked the basket more. The plan worked as they got to the line three separate times, making 5-6 from the charity stripe. After Warren Carter sank a pair of free throws the Illini led 36-29, their biggest lead of the half.

Arizona finished the first half strong and started the second fast as well. The Cats ended the first 20 minutes outscoring Illinois 7-2. Jawann McClellan drained a three and Shakur added two consecutive driving buckets to pull the Wildcats within one at the break.

Arizona kept up that pace as they came out of the locker room. Thanks to two Adams lay-ins and a pair of threes by Radenovic and Stoudamire. The Cats went on an 11-3 run and led by six when Stoudamire finally got a three to fall.

Illinois did not falter, quite the opposite. After the Wildcat scoring barrage, the Illini ran off a small run of their own. They sandwiched a Stoudamire runner between Jack Ingram and Head threes, then added a James Augustine hook shot to tie the game at 49.

The big men took over for the next several minutes. Frye scored six of the next eight Wildcat points, with Adams scoring the other two from the power forward spot. For the Illini it was Augustine and Powell combining for the next five points.

Frye was huge in his final game in a Wildcat uniform. He scored 24 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked six shots.

"I'll always be part of the Arizona family," said Frye. "No matter what I am doing I'll keep an eye on the program and come back whenever I can."

For Illinois they get to play again. The team has to feel as if they have a little angel looking out for them. They have lost just one game all season and earned the right to play within a bus ride of their campus the entire Tournament. Add to that the fact that it is 100th year of the program's history and the team is rallying around the death of Weber's mother.


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