Fighting Illini's feats cause mental block

From the sports editor

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BRAD SPENCER

Pardon me, but my head is mired in a thick cloud. I'm rubbing my eyes frantically, praying they come back into focus. I may be dealing with a sinus infection here, or something more serious. I still can't for the life of me figure out how Illinois beat Arizona 90-89 in overtime on Saturday night to advance to the Final Four of the NCAA championship.

With under five minutes left in the game, the Fighting Illini were down 15 points and playing like someone had filled their sneakers with cacti. I, nowhere near a true orange-and-blue-blooded Illinois fan but going with the ever so popular 'I live in Illinois therefore I am for Illinois'-mantra, gave up instantly on this multi-talented team. I put down my choice beverage and picked up the cell phone to call Dad, who has resided in Arizona for the better part of 20 years. He, no doubt, would be anxious to rub it in a bit. I was ready to do what was so hard for Al Gore and John Kerry. I wanted to concede immediately, more like precipitously. (And to bolster my head-in-a-cloud claim, I confess I had to ask a colleague here at the office who the guy was that Bush ran against, you know, when there was all that scuttlebutt over the hanging chads. "Al Gore for cryin' out loud you bonehead," was the gracious and deserved reply).

Something prevented me from making that early call to Dad. I'm not sure if it was a Deron Williams 3-pointer or the pizza arrived. I'm not sure if Dee Brown stole the ball or duty called. All I know is that when I looked back up, Illinois was down eight points with 75 seconds left in the game. It was nothing to go Easter-bunny-hopping over like my pals did, true die-hard Illini fans, but it was commendable. The hoppers advanced to bounding when Illinois cut the deficit to five with 45 seconds left. I found myself also with a springy step that caused a quick bout of vertigo. I vaguely recall a terrible lob pass by an Arizona player that ended up in the hands of Brown, or was it Powell? Head?

At any rate Williams, I think, nailed a 3-pointer that literally knocked Bill Murray out of his seat. I'm sure more went down, but I experienced some sort of brain meltdown, that lingers today as I write this.

You see, Illinois had been written off, not only by me but by most sports fans watching that game. You should be working for a hospice if with four minutes left in the game you still held hope Illinois was headed to St. Louis to play Louisville in the first game of the Final Four. But then again maybe you're not simply a fair-weather fan of this team. Perhaps you bleed the orange and blue. Perhaps you know why this team has the potential to win its first NCAA championship, beyond the talent, the team chemistry and the dynamics of the squad. Perhaps you knew that no other team all season had taken a double-digit lead on the Illini, therefore the 15-point deficit had to be temporary, a fluke. In a minute or two all would be well again. Perhaps you knew that the last team to have a lengthy lead on Illinois (nine points) was Purdue, and the Fighting Illini derailed the Boilermakers 68-59 in that game.

Perhaps you had faith that with so much talent eventually someone would take command and halt Arizona's progress. Perhaps you knew Williams would rattle off 18 of his 22 points in the second half and overtime. Perhaps you figured a higher being would take command of the moment, that Illinois head coach Bill Weber's recently deceased mother would chime in at the right time.

I called Dad after the game, not to concede or gloat, only to confer. Yet Dad wasn't playing to the same tune as 'I live in Arizona therefore I am for Arizona.' He was glad to see the Illini win. They've got so much talent and so much determination, proven on Saturday night.

The team is infectious, so much so that I may need antibiotics. But at least now I can rule out a sinus infection.

CONTACT: bspencer@wjinc.com

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