Phil Pash's Simply Sports: Do Illini have heroics left for St. Louis?

Arizona looked and played like Illinois while the Fighting Illini were busy digging themselves into a hole.

Then a glorious thing happened—the Illini dug themselves out of the hole, making up a 15-point deficit in the last four minutes to edge Arizona 90-89 in overtime March 26 for the NCAA Chicago Regional title and a Final Four ticket.

Illinois (36-1) has marched to “the Arch” (its first Final Four trip since 1989) and will face Louisville (33-4) in one national semifinal game in St. Louis April 2. Don’t be surprised if the game goes to OT because Louisville also needed OT to beat West Virginia 93-85 after—get this—rallying from 20 points.

Two miraculous endings in the same day? Yes, but that’s not the end of it. On March 27, Michigan State and Kentucky played two overtimes before the Spartans prevailed 94-88. There never before has been an NCAA regional final weekend with three OT games.

Michigan State (26-6) will play North Carolina (31-4) in the other St. Louis semifinal, with the two winners meeting April 4 for the national title. The Tar Heels had their hands full with Wisconsin, but finally got past the Badgers 88-82 for the fourth Final Four ticket.

Which sets up the possibility of an all-Big Ten finale between Illinois and Michigan State, if they both win April 2. An all-Big Ten title game? Wait a minute. Isn’t the ACC the best conference in the universe?

Trailing 75-60 with four minutes left vs. Arizona, it looked like Illinois’ goose was cooked, and you could sense the TV announcers were warming to espouse more of their drivel that North Carolina is the center of the college basketball universe (even though three Big Ten teams were in the Elite Eight compared to one from North Carolina).

If you watch the college game on TV, you know my North Carolina theory about announcers is true. They make it sound like no one can play the game, certainly no one from Illinois, Wisconsin or Michigan, where it’s cold and snowy during basketball season. Guess they’ll have to rethink that theory.

Anyway, Illinois used a 20-5 run to get back into the game. Deron Williams tied it at 80 by hitting a 3-pointer with 38 seconds left in regulation.

Salim Stoudamire, the hero of Arizona’s semifinal win over Oklahoma State with a last-second game-winner, dribbled the clock down and then passed the ball to Jawann McClellan. He missed, but Stoudamire came up with a loose ball, only to have his shot blocked by Luther Head.

Williams hit two more 3-pointers in overtime, but Illinois’ victory wasn’t secured until Arizona’s Hassan Adams, who’d scored five points to get the Wildcats within a point, missed a rushed shot just before the final buzzer.

Illinois’ previous biggest deficit this season was nine—in another victory. So the Illini haven’t had to play from that far behind before, but they did it.

“It’s heart, man, it’s just heart,’’ said Illinois’ Dee Brown. “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.

“We just played very hard down the stretch,’’ Brown said. “Deron Williams, the best guard in America, came through, made a lot of great plays. In the huddle, we just said we aren’t gong to lose this game.’’

If the coming weekend is as exciting as the past weekend, well, like Keith Jackson likes to say, “Whoa, Nellie!”

By the way, if it is an Illinois-MSU matchup for the title, they met only once this season with Illinois winning at East Lansing Feb. 1

UW-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl said he expected a hostile reaction from Illinois fans, and they didn’t disappoint him. Then the Illini beat his Panthers 77-63 in the regional semifinals March 24.

Pearl, then an Iowa assistant coach, secretly recorded a conversation in 1989 implicating recruit Deon Thomas and former Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins and forwarded it to NCAA investigators. An investigation cleared Thomas but found enough other malfeasance to land the Illini on probation.

The Chicago Tribune contacted Thomas before the Illinois-UWM game.

“It’s kind of hard to forgive a snake,” Thomas said by phone March 20 from Israel, where he plays professional basketball for Maccabi Tel Aviv.

According to the Trib, Thomas believes he speaks for many former teammates and current Illini fans in condemning Pearl. “I don’t really want to use the word, but he is evil,” Thomas, 34, said of Pearl. “What else can you say he is?

“I’ve moved on with my life, and things are going well here, but when you see so many people that were affected by what (Pearl) did, it still bothers you,” added Thomas, Illinois’ all-time leading scorer. “I won’t say I wish him the best, because I want Illinois to kill them when they play. That would be sweet.”

Thomas reiterated his 16-year-old contention that he never admitted to Pearl being offered $80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer by Collins as an inducement to sign. His voice rising, Thomas referred to those accusations as “lies that hurt people.”

A year later, the NCAA slapped Illinois with two years’ probation, a postseason ban in 1991 and scholarship and recruiting restrictions. But the report never referred specifically to Pearl’s allegations because they were never proved. Investigators had uncovered enough dirt in other areas to penalize coach Lou Henson’s program.

Told that Collins, now the Illinois-Chicago head coach, feels just as strongly and still refuses to shake Pearl’s hand after Horizon League games, Thomas understood.

“I wouldn’t either,” he said. “Because of jealousy, someone took away coach Collins’ lifestyle and his job. He messed up my future. How can you forget someone like that?”

“I cooperated with an NCAA investigation and provided information, testimony, documents and tapes as part of that,” Pearl said. “I’m sorry that the situation hurt Deon Thomas. In many ways he was a victim. But sometimes you have to choose to do the right thing when you see something that is wrong. I’m hoping that this is the last time I’ll have to revisit this.”

Tom Davis was head coach at Iowa at the time. Based on an interview on WSSP-AM-1250, the Milwaukee Journal reported Davis said Pearl acted on his own in the matter, although he supported him after the fact. Davis currently is the head coach at Drake University.

“Absolutely not,” Davis said when asked if he had a role in Pearl’s action. “It was well-documented at the time. It was one of those things. It was just something he thought was the correct thing to do. Then we all supported him and went on from there.”

Davis does not think Pearl had been blackballed by other colleges because of the incident. “I don’t see any evidence of that,” Davis said. “I think that was a media creation.”

Bruce Weber, the Illini’s head man, is a graduate of UW-Milwaukee. All three Weber boys and one of his two sisters attended the 26,000-student commuter campus 10 miles from the Weber home. Weber lived at home while going to school.

But Weber’s allegiance to UWM stopped when his younger brother, David, left. David Weber transferred to Weber State when UWM dropped down from Division I to Division III before, years later, going back up to Division I.

And then Weber was coaching under Gene Keady, first for one year at Western Kentucky and then 18 years at Purdue.

Their mother, Dawn Weber, who died March 11, was the matriarch of a family of coaches.

Her oldest son, Ron, was a coach who is now retired and living in Wisconsin. Her youngest son, David, is head coach at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, which won the IHSA Class AA state boys’ title March 19.

Bruce, the middle son, was named winner of the Naismith Men’s College Coach of the Year Award—as well as the Iba Award winner, also a coach of the Year Award. The Iba Award by the United States Basketball Writers Association will be presented during Final Four weekend at the Missouri Athletic Club. The Atlanta Tipoff Club will present Weber with the Naismith Award April 8.

Weber took charge as the 16th Fighting Illini men’s basketball coach on Apri

l 30, 2003, after spending the previous five seasons as head coach at Southern Illinois University. He led the Salukis to the top of the Missouri Valley Conference with championships in 2002 and 2003. He came to Champaign-Urbana after compiling a 103-54 (.656) record as a head coach at SIU. His 2003-04 Illini were 26-7, 13-3 in the Big Ten.

Fame and success have not changed Weber. He remains generous and humble. On road trips, no job is beneath him as he often helps team managers load the bus or passes out drinks and sandwiches to his players and staff. Weber’s warm personality has made him a popular figure in the state of Illinois, as he is a frequent guest at civic clubs, booster club meetings, golf outings and many other speaking engagements.

The trademark of Weber-led teams has been fundamentally sound defense.

Born Oct. 19, 1956, the Milwaukee native began his career as a volunteer assistant coach at Madison High School in Milwaukee and a varsity assistant at Marquette University High School. A 1978 UWM graduate, Bruce and his wife, Megan, have three daughters, Hannah (18), Christy (16) and Emily (12).

From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!