The Illini moved one win from the first championship in their 100-year history Saturday thanks to Roger Powell Jr. and Luther Head, who scored 20 points each to spark a 72-57 victory over Louisville and keep coach Bruce Weber's magical bus ride going straight through the title game.
The Illini (37-1), the best team in the country all season, got the tough test they expected from the Cardinals (33-5) and Rick Pitino, who made history by taking his third different program to the Final Four.
But Head and Powell made the difference as Illinois pulled away in the second half.
Head, one of three guards who make his team tick, made his first four 3-point attempts in the second half to help the Illini on an 11-0 run for a 61-49 lead with 6 minutes left.
Powell, meanwhile, proved Illinois isn't just about guards.
The 6-foot-6 forward hit a pair of 3s and powered underneath for a few more buckets to help the Illini pull away and give them an edge on the inside in an otherwise very even game.
Next for Illinois, a matchup Monday against either Michigan State or North Carolina for the championship. If the Illini win, they'll become the first team since the 1974 North Carolina State Wolfpack to win the championship without getting on an airplane in the postseason.
Indeed, this one felt a lot like a home game for the Illini, whose Orange Crush fan base has followed them around the country this season, especially over the last three weeks, when they've played in Indianapolis, Chicago and now St. Louis - all just a bus ride away.
Head's backcourt mates, Deron Williams and Dee Brown, each struggled, shooting a combined 5-for-17, and just 3-for-14 from 3-point range. But, as usual, they did the little things. Williams, who scored Illinois' first and last bucket of the game, finished with nine assists and five rebounds to go with his five points. Brown ran the point and took care of the ball, adding four assists.
Williams, Brown and Head also put some major `D' on Louisville.
Francisco Garcia, the Cardinals' best player most of the season, finished with four points and ended the season with two subpar games, this one coming on top of the come-from-behind win over West Virginia in which he fouled out and watched the last 9 minutes from the bench.
Taquan Dean and Larry O'Bannon picked him up in that one, but not this time. Dean never found his touch, going 4-for-15 and only making two 3-pointers as part of a 12-point night. O'Bannon went 4-for-10 for 12 points.
Forward Ellis Myles led the Cardinals with 17 points, but that was the problem: Louisville simply doesn't win much when it has to look to its forwards for the bulk of the scoring.
Pitino put on his usual show - stomping, screaming, trying to coax more out of a team that has largely been regarded as an overmatched underdog on many of its stops this year.
But unlike last week, when the Cardinals rallied from 20 points down for a win over West Virginia and the eighth trip to the Final Four in program history, there was no adjustment Pitino could make.
His team was getting beaten on the boards - 38-26 - and in the end, Illinois had too many good players in too many spots for the Cardinals to overcome.
The Illini pulled away after halftime, thanks mostly to Powell, who fell just four points short of his career high after playing only five minutes in the first half because of foul trouble.
After O'Bannon scored five straight to open the second half and give Louisville its first and only lead at 33-31, Powell spotted up for a 3-pointer to grab the lead back. On the next possession, he shot an open 3, which he missed, but grabbed the rebound himself for a two-handed jam.
In all, he scored 12 of Illinois' first 14 points in the second half, mixing lay-ups, short, spinning jumpers, another 3-pointer and one other putback of a teammate's miss.
Leading 64-55 and with both teams unable to score for nearly 2 minutes, it was Powell who layed in another teammate's miss to make it 66-55 with 2:30 left and begin the celebration.
When the buzzer sounded, several Illini stuck their forefingers in the air - as good a symbol as any for the team that has been ranked No. 1 since December and now has one more win to end what Weber called a fairytale season.