Nick Anderson and Kendall Gill of the Illinois basketball team were locked in an embrace as the Illini celebrated an 89-86 victory over Syracuse in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Midwest Regional final Sunday at the Metrodome.
“We’re going to the Final Four, man!” Anderson exclaimed before teammates piled on top of him in celebration.
While Illinois savored its moment of glory, Coach Lou Henson appeared subdued after guiding the Illini to the Final Four for the first time in 37 years.
“I could have put on a show,” Henson said. “I could thrown my sport coat off and run around kissing people, but we have business to take care of next week.”
Illinois (31-4) will meet Michigan (28-7) next Saturday in Seattle.
“Right now, Michigan is playing the best basketball of anyone in the NCAA,” Henson said. “I saw (Michigan’s 102-65 victory over Virginia in the Southeast Regional final) and they were unbelievable. They would have beaten a pro team.”
Although Illinois defeated Michigan twice, winning by margins of 12 and 16 points during the Big Ten season, Henson said the Wolverines have been extraordinary in the NCAA tournament.
“If (Michigan) plays like they’ve been playing, then nobody’s going to beat them,” he said. “They’ll win it all.”
If Anderson, Gill and Kenny Battle play like they played against Syracuse, Illinois may win the NCAA title.
Playing with a sprained right knee, Battle had 28 points, three rebounds and one assist as the Illini overcame a 13-point first-half deficit to defeat the Orangemen (30-8).
Battle, who had 17 points in the second half, made two free throws with 15 seconds remaining to seal the victory.
Anderson had 24 points and 16 rebounds en route to being named the most outstanding player of the regional.
Gill had 18 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals as he ran the Illini offense to perfection, setting up Anderson and Battle for alley-oop dunks.
What did Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim think of Gill?
“Gill’s a great player,” Boeheim said. “What do you want me to say? That I thought he was terrible and he surprised us?”
Gill also did a superb job of checking Syracuse guard Sherman Douglas, who had 15 points and eight assists before fouling out. Douglas, who had five turnovers, seemed to crack under Illinois’ relentless pressure defense.
Douglas, who looked exhausted after the game, was held scoreless for the first 19 minutes of the second half. Why wasn’t Douglas more productive?
“We didn’t look for Sherman in the second half,” Boeheim said. “We tried to get the ball inside as much as we could, and Sherman did the things a great point guard should do.
“We didn’t lose the game because Sherman didn’t score points. Your opinion might be different. If it is different, then you write it.”
Douglas nearly pulled the game out for Syracuse when he made a three-point shot to make the score 87-86 with 23 seconds remaining.
Syracuse fouled Marcus Liberty on the inbounds play, and the Illini freshman swingman missed the front end of a one-and-one. But Gill grabbed the rebound and fed Battle, who was fouled by Douglas and made the free throws.
Gill’s rebound may have been the biggest of the game for Illinois, which outrebounded Syracuse, 38-29.
Syracuse had a last shot at tying the game, but forward Stephen Thompson missed a three-point shot with eight seconds left. Thompson, who shot just 28.6% from three-point range this season, seemed to rush the desperation shot.
Why didn’t he take more time before shooting?
“When you’re coming down with the ball and time is running out you don’t want to get into a situation where the last shot will be a buzzer-beater,” Thompson said. “I tried to get it up there so we’d have a chance to get another shot if it didn’t fall.”
It didn’t fall and Illinois, which has been criticized for its past NCAA tournament failures, has finally beaten the rap that it is unable to win big games.
“I don’t think there should be a rap against Illinois,” Henson said. “That’s for people in the pool halls to talk about.
“Sure, we’ve lost some first-round games and we’ve lost some second-round games. But any time you lose in the NCAA someone is going to write that you can’t win the big games. Only people who don’t know anything about basketball dwell on us not winning big games.
“It’s always nice to get to the Final Four. It will give the alumni something to talk about.”
Freshman forward Billy Owens (22 points) and center Derrick Coleman (17) played well as Syracuse had a 46-39 lead at intermission.
But Illinois shot its way into the Final Four by making 20 of 27 shots (64.6%) in the second half.
Battle and Anderson, who had 16 points in the second half, were extraordinary.
With Illinois trailing, 68-66, Battle scored two consecutive baskets, making a jumper and a tip-in, to give the Illini a 70-68 lead. After Owens tied it, 70-70, with two free throws, Anderson scored on a tip-in and Gill bounced in a shot to cap an 8-2 spurt that put the Illini ahead to stay on the road to Seattle.
THE BATTLE TO SEATTLE
How the Final Four teams got to the national semifinals. Page 6.