It’s been 15 years since I witnessed the greatest comeback in my personal March Madness history when Illinois came back to beat Arizona in 2005.
I’ve never been more anxious and emotional during a college basketball game than when Illinois and Arizona met in the Elite Eight in 2005. Today marks the 15th anniversary of the greatest game I’ve ever seen and one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the NCAA Tournament.
The Comeback saw The Fighting Illini win 90-89 in overtime at the Allstate Arena in Chicago. 15 years later, I still can’t believe it actually happened.
Illinois was the No. 1 team in the nation, only losing in the regular-season finale to Ohio State before entering the NCAA Tournament. Led by a three-guard lineup featuring Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head, the Illini were as fun to watch as they were impossible to defend. Joined by Roger Powell and James Augustine in the starting lineup, Bruce Weber had a team that looked like they would be the first Illinois squad since the 1989 Flyin’ Illini to make the Final Four.
But it wasn’t. And the rest is history.
The Allstate Arena served as the home away from home for Illinois so entering the contest, I remember feeling pretty confident. That’s a pretty rare feeling for me as a sports fan because outside of Michael Jordan I haven’t had many examples of seeing championship teams to that point. My enthusiasm could not be curbed that day. Illinois was going to the Final Four, I was convinced, all that stood in the way was a former powerhouse.
The problem was maybe Illinois was a little too confident too because they traded barbs during a competitive first half but the second half was all Arizona. The Wildcats methodically took control and slowly extended their lead. This was unfamiliar territory for an Illinois team that had never trailed by more than nine points at any point during the season but was staring at a 75-60 deficit with four minutes left.
Just when I was about resigned to the fact there would be no comeback, no Final Four and wondering if sports only existed to break my heart, a little bit of hope crept in.
What followed next was pure and utter excitement, jubilation and a belief that sometimes good things happen to good people.
Head drilled a 3-pointer from a feed by Williams to make it a 77-66 game with 3:17 left. Still, a long way to go.
Head forces a turnover and it leads to a bucket by Brown. 77-68 with 2:43 remaining. Down to single-digits, but is there enough time to complete the comeback?!
My brief flirtation with optimism was crushed after Williams missed a shot and Powell had his attempt blocked. Oh no. It’s going to end. There’ not enough time.
NOT SO FAST!
Head gets a steal and lays it in. It’s a 77-70 game with 1:21 left. The Illini just won’t quit. Head, criminally underrated during his time at Illinois, is making things happen.
After Arizona split a pair of free throws to make it an eight-point game, Williams sprinted the distance of the court to get an easy layup. Arizona was set on not allowing any 3-point shots but Williams took an easy two to cut the deficit to 78-76 with just over a minute left.
Is this a fake rally? Is this really going to happen? Will they tie it only to lose in heartbreaking fashion? My heart couldn’t take it at the time. I was watching the end with my brother and future sister-in-law. We couldn’t comprehend what was happening or what was about to happen. We were living in the moment, hoping not to have our still-beating hearts ripped out of our chests.
Mustafa Shakur hit both his free throws on the other end to stretch their lead back to eight. If Illinois was going to do this, they were going to need to keep hitting their 3-pointers and Arizona was going to have to miss their free throws.
Head, who must have had ice running through his veins that day, drills a 3 from about four feet behind the line to make it an 80-75 game with 57 seconds remaining.
This is it.
The Illini went into a full-court press with Williams and Brown harassing Stoudamire in the backcourt. He barely got past half-court but a flustered Stoudamire turned the ball over when Williams and Brown converged. Brown scooped up the steal and darted to the rim for a quick layup.
It’s a three-point game with 45.3 seconds left.
“Oh my,” Dick Enberg said during the CBS broadcast with Jay Bilas next to him doing color commentary.
Illinois remained in full-court press mode with Stoudamire inbounding the ball. He wilted down the stretch and lobbed a reckless pass to Frye that was batted away by Jack Ingram and into the waiting hands of Williams who took one step and launched a 3-pointer just to the right of dead-on center. This is arguably the biggest shot in Illinois basketball history.
Illinois erased a 15-point deficit in just over three minutes.
But it wasn’t over yet.
Arizona still had a chance for a final shot to win in regulation but Head blocked a would-be attempt to send the game to overtime.
Deep breaths all around.
Illinois came back down 15 to force overtime. It would be a punch to the gut to come all this way only to lose in overtime.
The Illini didn’t let up in overtime, building a 90-84 lead with 1:35 remaining, but the Wildcats didn’t go down easy. Adams came alive in the extra frame to cut into the Illini lead and it was a one-point game with less than a minute to go.
Head missed on a contested driving layup with Adams and Frye on the defense. Arizona had a chance to take the lead with the final possession.
Adams showed no sense of urgency and held the ball for way too long before chucking up a desperation 3-point attempt with Williams in his face. The shot bricked off the top of the backboard.
Illinois had won 90-89 to go to the Final Four for the first time since 1989.
The Illini bench stormed the court after to celebrate the unthinkable comeback that probably took a few days for it to sink in.
Weber, Williams and Brown’s comments to the AP after the game are a combination of awe, unbridled confidence and wondering if fate intervened.
“Just amazing,” Weber said.
“We just kept fighting. We never gave up,” said Williams.
“It’s heart man, it’s just heart,” Brown said. “The whole time I was saying ‘If it was meant to be, it was meant to be.’ And I guess it was meant to be that we go to the Final Four.”
“It’s really hard to explain the feeling during that stretch,” Augustine told Grantland on the 10-year anniversary. “When you’re in Assembly Hall, the place explodes and everything’s shaking. It’s so loud and you can’t think. This whole emotion was completely different. We were coming back, people were screaming. There was so much emotion that it was almost like an out-of-body experience.”
Williams finished with 22 points and 10 assists. Head had 20 points, four steals and matched Williams with five made 3-pointers. Brown had 14 points, five rebounds, seven assists and three steals.
Frye had 24 points and 12 rebounds to pace Arizona and it resulted in him becoming the No. 8 pick, five spots behind Williams, in the 2005 NBA Draft.
Stoudamire really hurt Arizona, shooting 2-of-13 from the field and 1-of-7 from 3-point range to finish with only nine points. He was stymied all game by Williams, Brown and Head.
The day after I remember being with my extended family for an Easter celebration. Many of my family members are either Illinois graduates, current students or fans of the program. We were all in disbelief the next day. I remember telling them I was crying after the game. It was such an emotional moment that it all poured out. I wasn’t crying like when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, but I was just so overcome with relief, happiness and for the first time in my sports life I saw the unbelievable happen — in a good way — for the team I loved.
15 years later, I think back to the comeback often, especially every March when the memories come flooding back when I saw the unbelievable happen.
It still doesn’t feel real sometimes, but then I watch the clip of the comeback and I get that feeling all over again. I hope this feeling never goes away.
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