MEMORY LANE: Illinois’ Elite 8 Comeback vs. Arizona in 2005

Introducing MEMORY LANE.

With March Madness canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, we’ll be reliving some legendary tournament moments on the days when NCAA basketball would’ve been played. Enjoy.

You may have forgotten about the Fighting Illini team that captured the hearts of the nation back in 2005—the team that grew from the Illinois cornfields to No. 1 in the nation. Dee Brown, in his trademark cornrows and megawatt smile, became the poster child of men’s college basketball that year. Deron Williams introduced his filthy crossover to the basketball faithful. Luther Head’s athleticism and sniper-like shooting caught the eye of NBA scouts. Featuring a three-guard starting lineup, the Illini led the nation in assists and finished second in threes.

With just one regular-season loss (after starting the season 29-0), a Big Ten championship and an average point differential of nearly 16 points, Illinois earned the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They cruised through the first several rounds before facing a tough Arizona squad in the Elite 8. Led by Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire, the Wildcats had a 15-point lead with just over four minutes left. Was the Illini’s season coming to an end?

Beginning with a Luther Head three-pointer, Illinois began to mount a furious comeback. Fans were glued to their TVs as the darlings of the tournament kicked it into another gear. The team’s heart and cajones were on full display as they got stop after stop and hit three after three.

With 48 seconds remaining, Brown stole the ball from Stoudamire and got the fastbreak layup to cut the deficit to 80-77. Pressing full court on the next possession, Illinois stole the inbounds pass and got it to Williams, who drained a three that would tie the game at 80-80.

Williams kept the hot hand in overtime, knocking down two of his game-high five treys from downtown. Despite a monster game from Frye (24 points, 11-14 FG, 12 boards, 6 blocks), Illinois held on to the lead and punched their ticket to the Final Four with a 90-89 victory.

In an era where three-point shooting wasn’t yet en vogue, the Illini shot a blistering 16-35 (45.7 percent) from outside. Williams dropped a team-high 22 points with 10 dimes. Head added 20 points with 5 treys and 4 steals. Brown scored 15 points with 7 dimes and 3 steals. And the nation’s No. 1 team continued to captivate hearts across the country.

Illinois would defeat Louisville by 15 in the Final Four, but eventually lost to a superiorly talented North Carolina team in the title game. The people’s champs during the 2004-05 season, the Fighting Illini may have been the best ever not to win a national championship.

Ryne Nelson is a Senior Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @slaman10.

Photos via Getty.