Tuesday, April 05, 2005

On Any Other Night...

Any other night and those shots fall.

Luther Head's three-pointers in the final minute, that is.

But they didn't. It happens.

North Carolina 75, Illinois 70.

I wanted to say that the journey wasn't supposed to end this way. I wanted to gripe about another Chicago sports story ending typically in tears. I wanted to vent about the refs putting Sean May on the free throw line seemingly every time an Illini player dared breathe on him.

But I won't do any of the above.

Instead, I'll simply say that the better team won. North Carolina wasn't better by much, but they were better by enough. Just barely. At no point in the game did the Heels look out of control. They led virtually the entire way, and when the Illini made a run, the Heels answered. Every time. May was dominant inside and Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants were deadly outside. Props all around to the Heels and to Roy Williams, who finally earned his deserved national title.

North Carolina 75, Illinois 70. That sounds about right.

Naturally, the Illini, as is their style, went down swinging. Down by as many as 15 points in the second half, they fought back to tie it. Never let it be said that they gave up. Never let it be said that their talent wasn't matched by heart and guile. Never let it be said that they weren't warriors. In fact, they had every chance to win it at the end.

But the final shots didn't fall.

It happens.

But on any other night...

When Head turned the ball over in the final moments, clinching the Heels' win, it was the Illini's first turnover of the second half. That figures. They were nearly perfect in the second half. When the deficit was spiraling, the game getting out of hand, and the dream quickly dying, the Illini played nearly flawless basketball. You wouldn't expect anything else from this group.

No, there was nothing to be ashamed of in this loss. Nothing.

In the end, May was the Illini's worst nightmare. All season long we heard the theory that a dominant big man would ultimately be the Illini's undoing. Well, I guess it was the truth. Big, burly, and strong, May was simply too much for the Illini's triumvirate of Roger Powell, James Augustine, and Jack Ingram. Anyone with limited basketball knowledge could tell that May was options one, two, and three for the Heels. As he should have been. Augustine was deep in foul trouble, Ingram wasn't far behind, and Powell was undersized.

May was the difference. Plain and simple.

Yet no matter how difficult May made it, you never lost the sense that the Illini would pull out the win. Somehow. Some way. It's what they always did. As those final, doomed Illini three-point attempts were lofted in the final minute, how could you not believe that at least one would go in? How could the Illini not take that one final lead and hold onto it? How could they not at least send the game into overtime? This was a team of destiny, right? Those shots were meant to drop, right?

I guess not. Not on this night at least. Any other night and those shots probably fall. But not on this night.

It happens.

So now Powell heads off into his future as a man of God, and a shot in the NBA, despite what his critics might say about his status as a "tweener." Whatever. There isn't an NBA team that couldn't use Powell's heart. Head will also have his chance in the NBA. It's a shame that Head will likely recall the final minute of last night's game and ponder his turnover and his two missed shots. He shouldn't. Neither should we. We should remember the big shots he did make, and his stifling defense, and the way he gutted it out on a gimpy hamstring. Deron Williams, whose cool nature typified that of the Illini, will enjoy the NBA lottery status he earned himself in the last two weeks. Dee Brown, if he's smart, will return for another year and hone his game. But if he doesn't? Ah, well, good for him. He's already left his heart on college courts all over the Midwest. We couldn't rightfully ask for any more. Augustine will return motivated for his senior year with a bad taste in his mouth after fouling out with zero points. Ingram leaves with his status as an Illini legend firmly intact. His red hair will always be remembered, as will his points and rebounds, which always seemed a blessing rather than anything to be expected.

These guys will never step on the court together again. Sad. They gave us all one helluva ride. From the near-miss undefeated regular season, to the miracle comeback against Arizona, to the valiant comeback against North Carolina. It was all...fun.

So many supposedly title-contending Chicago teams of the past proved to be jokers. They filled you with you hope only to crash and burn, and more often than not in embarrassing fashion.

Let that not be said about this Illini team.

Yeah, last night's loss was disappointing, but the Illini were far from a disappointment.

Any other night and those shots fall. On any other night, man.


OK, I was going to be big about this. I wasn't going to bitch. And, honestly, I tried. But I have to vent:

1) Rashad McCants? Dude comes off like an asshole who kept it line just long enough to do UNC good. He has typical NBA clown written all over him. He'll be a mix between Stephon Marbury and Jamal Crawford - but with a lot less talent. I see all sorts of pouting, bitching, posturing, thuggery, and general dickheadedness in his future. Or in other words, I see him fitting in the NBA nicely. Of course, Scoop Jackson will write glowing articles about how he's a "balla" and put him in wonderfully glossy photos featuring his sneakers prominently. But he's a bust. Mark my words.

2) As awesome as May was last night (and throughout the tourney), his NBA future looks about as bright as his pop's. OK, maybe not that bad. I mean, the guy's personal tourney run was as dominant as any in years. But May looks like a really big kid who was able to bulldoze people in college. He won't be able to do that in the NBA. And his weight looks like it could be a real problem. He looks borderline fat.

And, oh yeah, in the NBA he won't draw a foul seemingly everytime he touches the ball. Look, I'm not bitching about the referring. The Illini were fouling him. Probably. A few lookied iffy. However, May's entire game is based on tossing around his weight and strength. He initiates it. It was a shame the way the refs handcuffed the Illini by, essentially, determining that it was OK for May to play physical, but not OK for the Illini to try and combat that on equal terms. May can't have it both ways.

OK, I'm done. That feels better. Apologies.


Jay Mariotti is a clown, as if this wasn't already known.

Read this garbage he spewed forth yesterday:

The fear factor is self-evident. With Deron Williams headed to the NBA and Head, Powell, Ingram and Nick Smith moving on, the Illini won't be making another Final Four anytime soon. This is the program's first national-championship game in its 100th year of hoops. The pressure is stifling. True, Roy Williams has more pressure, with America wondering if he'll break down and cry if he doesn't win again. Phil Mickelson broke through, the Red Sox broke through. Will Roy always be the Buffalo Bills of April, even at his beloved Carolina?

Still, you sense he'll be back again, win or lose. Will Weber? Will the Illini?


Let's see here. The Illini have the most NCAA wins of any team never to win a title. In the last five years they have four Sweet Sixteen appearances, two Elite Eight appearances, and a trip to the title game. Bruce Weber seems to be the real deal, a coach that can coax the best out of an entire roster. Now, toss in the fact that Chicago offers a direct pipeline into some of the nation's best and deepest high school talent.

It looks promising. Nut maybe that's just me.

Yeah, Jay, you're right. The thought of Illinois competing for the national title again anytime soon is inconceivable.


Jay, please crawl back to wherever you came from. You suck. You're a fraud. And everyone knows it.


Blogger Brian said...

Well said. May was unstoppable and UNC just wouldn't let the Illini inside. Those dropped 3s in the first half did us in I think.

A great season, though.

9:27 AM  

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