Powell steps up for 2nd-half surge
After early foul trouble, Illinois' big man finished with 20 points.
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Roger Powell Jr. darted in from the top of the key, grabbed the rebound from his own missed 3-pointer and screamed as he slammed the ball through the hoop.
The Illini's big guys do have some game.
With Dee Brown and Deron Williams sputtering, Powell came up with a huge second half to make sure Illinois' special season will last another game.
"I really did pray at halftime. Seemed like it worked, I guess. It was just bouncing my way," said Powell, a licensed Pentecostal minister.
After sitting most of the first half with foul trouble, Powell scored 12 of Illinois' first 14 points in the second to spark a 72-57 victory over Louisville and give the Illini a spot in their very first championship game. Powell finished with 20 points Saturday, one off his season high, and also had five rebounds.
As the final seconds ticked down, Powell stood on the court with a big smile on his face and both hands raised in the air. Fellow big man Jack Ingram, who had nine points, waved his arms at the rowdy Illinois fans, urging them to cheer louder.
"We wrote April 4 on the board about six weeks ago, seven weeks ago, and we are playing April 4 for the national championship," coach Bruce Weber said. "So we're very excited."
Actually, the Illini (37-1) have been thinking about playing for the national title for about a year. After losing in the regional semifinals last spring, they set their sights on the Final Four in nearby St. Louis. They break their huddle at the end of each practice with a chant of "national champions."
They clearly were the best team in the regular season, ranked No. 1 since Dec. 6 and going undefeated until the regular season finale at Ohio State. They also had the ideal route to the Final Four, playing all of their tournament games less than three hours from campus.
But early on, Illinois looked like it might come up short of its goal. Williams, Brown and Luther Head were dismal in the first half, shooting 6-for-19. Williams made Illinois' opening bucket, a 3-pointer, then missed on his next four shots, finishing with three points -- one less than little-used Nick Smith.
And Illinois' big men, maligned all year as the team's weakness, weren't doing much, either. The Illini put up 3-pointer after 3-pointer, taking a dizzying 19 shots from long range in the first half. But they made only six of them, and their 31-28 lead at the half seemed very shaky, indeed.
"We talked about the 3-pointers. We wanted to get it inside," James Augustine said. "Coach saw some things that were open, that the bigs weren't doing, kind of drew it up on the board and it obviously worked."
Four straight baskets
After Larry O'Bannon made a pair of free throws to give Louisville a 33-31 lead, its first of the game, Powell went to work. He started his own run of four straight baskets with a 3-pointer from NBA range. After getting the rebound at the other end of the floor, he tried for another 3.
But the shot wouldn't go, setting up the most spectacular play of the game.
"That tip dunk, I just knew it was going to come off like that," Powell said, shaking his head. "I don't know how. I just knew that."
As soon as the ball left his hands, Powell sprinted inside. When the ball clanged off the rim, he got his hands on it and dunked it, rattling the backboard and bringing his cheering teammates to their feet.
"That was crazy," Williams said. "That definitely should be top 10 -- it's No. 1 in my book. He played great and stepped up when he had to and made a big-time impact."
Powell scored on a driving finger roll, and finished his spurt with a hook shot to give Illinois a 40-37 lead with 15:08 to play.
Louisville tied the game again, at 42, on Francisco Garcia's steal and driving layup, but Powell was right there again with a 3-pointer.
"He went through a stretch where he just took the game in his hands," Head said. "He just took on the scoring."
Powell and Head sealed the victory with another flurry of baskets midway through the half. After Dee Brown missed a long 3, Powell grabbed the rebound and scored on the layup. Head followed with back-to-back 3s.
After a short timeout, Powell stole the ball from Garcia and made a baseline jumper to give Illinois a 60-49 lead, its biggest of the game, with 6:17 remaining.
"The seniors carried us," Weber said. "I said a long time ago, our juniors are great but we are no better than our seniors. Our seniors will determine how good we are. I think they stood up big tonight and made a difference. They got us to the championship."
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