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Mike Lopresti | | April 7, 2020

Looking back at lllinois' improbable comeback against Arizona — voted's best March Madness moment

Watch the amazing finish: Illinois rallies from 15 down in 2005 Elite Eight

It was an Elite Eight like none other, that weekend in 2005 when the compelling finishes were lined up coast to coast.

In Syracuse, North Carolina barely held off upstart No. 6 seed Wisconsin, 88-82. Roy Williams was back in the Final Four, this time with his alma mater. Just what he had returned to Chapel Hill to do.

In Austin, Kentucky’s Patrick Sparks saved the Wildcats in the last second of regulation with a 3-pointer that rattled around the rim before falling through. It took the officials more than five minutes of studying the replay, as if it were the Zapruder film, to decide that, yes, Sparks’ toe had been just behind the 3-point arc. Turned out, it was only a temporary Kentucky reprieve, as Michigan State won 94-88 in two overtimes.

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In Albuquerque, West Virginia buried Louisville in the first half with 10 3-pointers, rolling to a 20-point lead. The Cardinals threw out their entire game plan at halftime, and roared back to win 93-85 in overtime. “That’s the beauty of this game — expect the unexpected,” West Virginia coach John Beilein said when it was over.

Yep, a truly epic weekend. Have we forgotten anything?

Oh, right. The most fantastic finish of them all. And, by voting, the most exciting moment in the history of the NCAA tournament. We should go back in time to remember how it was.

It’s March 26, 2005, in Chicago’s Allstate Arena, and the place is packed with thousands in orange — Illinois fans there to see the No. 1 ranked Illini storm past Arizona to the Final Four. It’s nearly an Illinois home game, with campus just over two hours away. But why is everyone so quiet?

Look at the scoreboard. Arizona 75, Illinois 60, with four minutes left. Big, big trouble for the quasi-home team. But there’s something we should know about the Illini. They’re 35-1, and the biggest deficit they had faced all season was nine points. Only five of their 35 wins had been by single digits. Their lone loss, at Ohio State, had been by a single point. They had steamrolled their schedule. But suddenly, their world is different.

A 15-point deficit with 240 seconds left? That must look like the Grand Canyon. No wonder, the stands are so silent. “It looked,” the Illini’s Deron Williams said later, “like the game was over.”

No, it isn’t.

With 3:50 left, Williams hits a 3-pointer, and the miracle run is on. "They didn’t know,” Illinois’ Dee Brown would say afterward, “what was coming at them.” Over the next three minutes, Arizona has no field goals and four turnovers. Illinois hits seven baskets — the last a 3-pointer by Williams that ties the game 80-80 with 39 seconds left. “It was crazy,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said later. “I didn’t even know where the baskets were coming from.”

Watch full game: Illinois goes on 20-5 run to force overtime and take down Arizona in the 2005 Elite Eight

The trip to the Final Four has melted before the Arizona Wildcats’ eyes, like an ice cube in a hot skillet. “Guys left and right on their team were hitting big buckets, left and right, left and right. Whether it was a big guy or a guard,” Arizona’s Mustafa Shakur told reporters later.

But once the day had been saved for Illinois, it then has to be won. Williams hits two more 3-pointers in overtime, but not until a last Arizona shot falls away at the buzzer is it decided, 90-89. The Illini have been outshot and outrebounded. Arizona has hit 52 percent and gotten a great game from Channing Frye, with 24 points and 12 rebounds and 11-for-14 shooting. But Illinois could not be stopped. “I guess it was meant to be that we go to the Final Four,” Brown said. It is only the second time the Illini have been there in 53 years. Fitting, then, that this last turn in the road is so special.

Looking back, it was not just an astonishing ending, but something of a crossroads in the careers of two coaches.

The victory sent Weber and Illinois onto the Final Four, where they would lose to second-ranked North Carolina in the championship game — the last No. 1 vs. No. 2 title matchup. It turned out his brightest month as Illini coach. He would be fired in 2012, without ever again getting past the first weekend of the tournament.

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The loss ended Lute Olson’s last genuine chance at the Final Four. Had had already been there five times, and won the title in 1997 — still the last national champion from the West. He was back in the tournament twice more after 2005, but went 1-2, and retired in 2008.

But for one weekend, the two men shared a remarkable stage. It was an unforgettable moment. It had to be, if it was to even deserve the title of best game of the weekend.

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