Illinois coach Bruce Weber called it amazing.
Arizona guard Mustafa Shakur called it unbelievable.
Dee Brown suggested it was divine intervention. And though I typically scoff at such logic as it pertains to sporting events, who could argue after Illinois advanced to the 2005 Final Four despite trailing Arizona by 15 points with less than four minutes left in regulation? Seriously, how does that happen? Most teams couldn't score 15 points in less than four minutes, much less overcome a 15-point deficit in less than four minutes against the reigning Pac-10 champions in the Elite Eight.
So, absolutely yes, it was amazing (just like Weber said) and unbelievable (just like Shakur said), and perhaps even an act of god (so long as you call god Deron Williams). Coming in at No. 3 on the list of the "10 Best NCAA March Madness games from last decade" is ...
Illinois vs. Arizona (2005)
|Deron Williams strutted his stuff in the comeback. (Getty Images)|
"Illinois cannot panic right now," said color analyst Jay Bilas, at which point Williams did the opposite of panic. Cool and in rhythm, the future NBA star sank a 3-pointer that cut the deficit to 75-63. It was the first of four 3-pointers the Illini would make in the final four minutes. The second and third both belonged to Luther Head -- who used his first to slash the lead to 77-66 with 3:22 remaining, his second to slash the lead to 80-75 with 58 seconds left. Suddenly, the Illini were back in it.
But think about it.
Though being down five with 58 seconds left seems like nothing compared to being down 15 with four minutes left, the Illini were -- and I can't stress this enough -- still down five points with just 58 seconds left, and Arizona had the ball. In other words, the chances of a completing the comeback remained slim to impossible. But an Arizona turnover led to a Brown layup (80-77 with 45 seconds left), and then another Arizona turnover on the subsequent inbounds pass created another Illinois opportunity. Brown swung the ball to Williams, who was somehow all alone and calling for the pass. He took one dribble, stepped into a 3-pointer and drained it with 38 seconds remaining. Just like that, things were headed to overtime, and there was no way Illinois was losing there -- not with the "home" crowd in a frenzy and momentum on their side.
Final score: Illinois 90, Arizona 89 (OT)
Recap: Illinois 90, Arizona 89 (OT)
SB Nation: The comeback in Rosemont
NCAA.com Video Vault: Watch any tournament game played Sweet 16 and beyond since 2000
"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 going to lose this game."
Illinois beat Louisville the following Saturday and played UNC for the national title.
The Illini lost that game.
They couldn't control Sean May.
But by then, their place in modern history had been cemented. They spent much of the season atop the national rankings, helped Weber escape the shadow of the man he replaced (Bill Self), and were responsible for one of the greatest comebacks the NCAA tournament has ever produced.
Illinois was down 15 with less than four minutes remaining.
Was it divine intervention?
I doubt it.
But that probably makes as much sense as anything else.
|Top 10 March Madness games of the decade|
|Wed., Jan. 6||No. 10: Ohio State vs. Xavier (2007)||Wed., Feb. 10||No. 5: Connecticut vs. Duke (2004)|
|Wed., Jan. 13||No. 9: North Carolina vs. Illinois (2005)||Wed., Feb. 17||No. 4: George Mason vs. UConn (2006)|
|Wed., Jan. 20||No. 8: Villanova vs. Pittsburgh (2009)||Wed., Feb. 24||No. 3: Illinois vs. Arizona (2005)|
|Wed., Jan. 27||No. 7: Davidson vs. Georgetown (2008)||Wed., March 3||No. 2: UCLA vs. Gonzaga (2006)|
|Wed., Feb. 3||No. 6: Syracuse vs. Kansas (2003)||Wed., March 10||No. 1: Kansas vs. Memphis (2008)|