Hoop Glories: the greatest moments in Illini basketball
How special is the history of Illinois basketball? Consider the moments that didn’t make the school’s all-time Top 10:
- Bob Starnes, ’63 AHS, three-quarter-court basket to beat rival Northwestern
- A rally for the ages by the Flyin’ Illini to knock off Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights game
- A victory at Duke that ended the Blue Devils’ 95-game, home-court, nonconference winning streak
- Monster dunks by Kenny Battle, ’89 LAS, against Georgia Tech
Yes, they were all spectacular moments. Certainly a part of basketball lore at Illinois. But a panel of experts (see below) found 10 that were even better.
Panelists were given 28 moments and asked to whittle down the list to 10.
First-place votes were awarded 10 points, nine for second, etc. In total, 15 different moments received at least one vote. Five were on all five ballots and three others were listed on four.
Bob Asmussen, in his 28th year at The (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette, writing about Illinois men’s basketball and football. He covered the 2005 NCAA title game and five men’s basketball coaches.
Brian Barnhart, starting his 15th season as the radio “Voice of the Illini” for men’s basketball and football. The Tolono, Ill., native has called a Rose Bowl and an NCAA title game during his tenure.
Marcus Jackson, in his second decade working as a reporter at The News-Gazette, including a just-completed run as a basketball beat writer.
Mike Pearson, former Illinois sports information director. He is completing his third version of Illini: Legends, Lists & Lore, a comprehensive book about the history of Illinois athletics.
Mark Tupper, a longtime sportswriter and Illinois beat writer for the Decatur (Ill.) Herald & Review.
To add to the suspense, we’re saving the best for last.
Here’s the countdown.
To even get in position for Williams’ heroics, the Illini needed to rally from nine points down in the final three minutes. Cory Bradford, ’02 LAS, started the rally with a three-pointer to cut the gap to six. A pair of Robert Archibald, ’02 LAS, free throws made it a four-point game.
Minnesota tried to run the clock and mostly succeeded, cutting all but 20 seconds while maintaining its lead.
Williams, ATTENDEE, stole the ball from Minnesota, setting up another three by Bradford to make it 66-65.
Still, the Gophers had the ball and a chance to end the game. But another wayward pass, this one by Kevin Burleson, gave the Illini the ball with 6.9 seconds left.
Williams took the inbounds pass and immediately drove toward the basket. His closely guarded layup went high off the backboard and into the basket for a 67-66 Illini win.
“We drew up a play and it was one of those times where it worked to perfection,” said Illini guard Sean Harrington, ’03 MEDIA, who inbounded the ball.
Fifty-three years later, the record stands as the single-best game in school history. By a wide margin. No. 2 is Andy Kaufmann, who scored 46 points in a 1990 game against Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
That record number, 53, is part of Illinois lore—and part of the renovated State Farm Center. Downey, ’63 BUS, JD ’66, donated $2 million to his Alma Mater, which honored him by naming the courtside seating area “Club 53.”
Before the game at Bloomington’s IU Field House, Downey was feeling ill. So bad, in fact, that he didn’t participate in pregame warm-ups.
But once the whistle blew, Downey was ready. He hit 11 of 17 shots in the first half for 27 points.
Downey almost matched that in the second half with another 26 points. He finished the game 22 of 34 from the field and nine of nine at the line. He set Big Ten records for points and field goals in a game.
When he was playing pro basketball in Austria, Griffey,’13 AHS, would run into Illinois or Big Ten fans. Usually, the topic would get around to his game-winner against the Hoosiers.
“I hear about the IU shot quite a bit, but it never gets old, especially now that I’m done playing,” Griffey says.
Two questions remain: How did he get so open? And what would have happened if he had missed it?
On the first, thank a well-designed play by Illini Head Coach John Groce, a perfect pass by Brandon Paul, ’13 AHS, and a timely cut to the basket by Griffey.
On the second … “I do think about what would have happened if I had missed,” Griffey says. “Like the aftermath of it all. Flashes of Sports Center Not Top Ten and being remembered for all the wrong reasons always creep into my head.”
The 74-72 victory earned Griffey a special place in the hearts of Illinois fans. And it helped the team earn an NCAA tournament berth, the only one for Groce in his first four seasons at the school.
It was supposed to be the first big test for Illinois’ national title contenders. Wake Forest brought the No. 1 ranking and star guard Chris Paul to Assembly Hall for an ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchup. It wasn’t close.
Deron Williams, ATTENDEE, Dee Brown,’05 LAS, Luther Head, 06 AHS, and friends went berserk, and the Demon Deacons never knew what hit them.
Illinois led 54-33 at halftime and never let Wake get close. The Illini hit led by as many as 32. They showed their unselfish side with 27 assists.
During the postgame, Brown was asked: “Is there a better team than Illinois?”
“I don’t know what to say,” Brown said. “After that performance, you tell me.”
In the final seconds, the fans in the packed Assembly Hall started chanting “We’re No. 1.” No argument from the Demon Deacons.
“If I had a vote? I’d put them No. 1 for sure,” Wake Forest center Eric Williams said.
Illinois had just won its way to the first title game in school history. In the Edward Jones Dome locker room in St. Louis, the players hugged and high-fived. But it was far from an all-out celebration.
“We wanted to act like we’d been there before. Even though we hadn’t,” star guard Deron Williams said after the game.
The 72-57 win over Head Coach Rick Pitino’s Cardinals was decided by a 41-29 Illinois advantage in the second half. The Illini hit 63 percent of their shots after the break, ending any hopes for a Louisville comeback.
Roger Powell Jr., ’05 LAS, and Luther Head each scored 20 points, with Powell getting 18 in the second half.
When the team reached the expected Final Four, the pressure was off. It showed against Louisville.
“Once we got here, it was a little more relaxed,” Williams said.
The game was close in the second half until the Illini went on a 12-0 run to take control.
The Illini played great defense against Louisville star Francisco Garcia, holding him to four points on 2 of 10 shooting.
The 1978-79 Illinois basketball team was good. Especially at the start of the season. Led by stars Eddie Johnson, ’83 LAS, and Mark Smith, attendee, the Illini opened the year 15-0 and climbed to No. 4 in the national polls.
Win No. 15 came against the Spartans at Assembly Hall. Magic Johnson, Greg Kelser and the eventual national champs watched helplessly as Eddie Johnson nailed a 15-footer from the right baseline in the final seconds.
Although he spent 17 years in the NBA, Johnson is best known by Illinois fans for knocking off the Spartans.
“It’s given me an opportunity to still be remembered by people, and that’s what you want,” Johnson said during a 2014 appearance in Champaign. “You want to be able to leave a legacy, leave something behind and help contribute to someone’s happiness. That was my opportunity to do it. I jumped up and seized it.”
Illinois Head Coach Lou Henson set up the play and Johnson executed it. To perfection. Illinois 57, Michigan State 55.
On the way to Seattle’s Kingdome, Henson’s guys knocked off a pair of NCAA powers in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis. First, a regional semifinal win against Louisville. Next, a hard-fought 89-86 victory against No. 7-ranked Syracuse.
Illinois reached the Final Four for the first time in 37 years. It was the long-sought goal of Henson’s most-touted team.
“That was a great victory for us,” Henson said.
The Illini battled back from a 13-point deficit early in the game.
They took the lead in the final six minutes. Kenny Battle, the heart of the team, appropriately sealed the deal with a pair of free throws in the final seconds.
Battle and Nick Anderson, attendee, combined for 52 points, hitting 22 of 35 shots. Anderson had a game-high 16 rebounds. Kendall Gill, ’93 las, added 18 points.
The Illini won despite missing half of their 26 free-throw attempts.
There were 1.5 seconds left when T.J. Wheeler, ’95 LAS, took the ball from the official and started running the baseline. He fired a baseball pass to teammate Andy Kaufmann, ’99 LAS, who moved toward the basket and sank a three-pointer for a 78-77 Illinois victory.
Wheeler deserves some of the credit, Henson said. “You can’t make those shots unless you have a good passer.”
The Illini needed Kaufmann’s heroics after Iowa scored on a ball that bounced off Illini star Deon Thomas, LAS ’94, by accident. The Illini admitted afterward it would have been a dreadful way to lose a game. Wheeler and Kaufmann saved the day.
The 1993 game at Assembly Hall was full of emotion. Iowa was loathed for its role in an NCAA investigation into the Illinois program that led to probation.
The Hawkeyes were still dealing with the recent death of Iowa star Chris Street, who had been killed in a car accident.
If you want to call it “The Shot,” that’s OK. Illinois fans will know what you are talking about.
With two seconds left in the 1989 game at Bloomington, Ind., Stephen Bardo, ’90 LAS, fired a pass toward the cutting Illinois star. Nick Anderson turned and launched a 30-footer that found nothing but the bottom of the net—and set off a wild Illini celebration.
“We set up a double screen for Nick,” Henson said. “We had Bardo throw it to a spot. Nick had to get there, and he did.”
It was 67-67 before Anderson’s game-winner. The Hoosiers tied the score on Jay Edwards’ shot from behind the basket.
Initially, the clock read 0:0 after the Edwards basket, but official Ed Hightower correctly put time back on the clock.
Indiana Head Coach Bob Knight chose not to guard Bardo’s inbounds pass. That proved to be a mistake.
“This is the shot I’ll always remember,” Anderson said. “It felt good when I got it off, but I didn’t know until it neared the basket that it was going in.”
1. Deron Williams’ three in regional final comeback against Arizona
Every moment in the game has significance. But Deron Williams provided the exclamation point, tying the game 80-80 with 39 seconds left. The shot capped a hectic rally by the Illini.
Down 15 against Arizona with 4:04 left in the 2005 regional final, Illinois appeared to be done.
“Coach [Bruce Weber] said, ‘If we’re going to go down, let’s go down fighting,’” Williams said.
Williams started the rally with a three-pointer at the 3:50 mark.
Baskets by Luther Head and Dee Brown cut the margin to nine at 2:43. Brown’s layup with 45 seconds left made it three.
Jack Ingram’s, ’05 ENG, steal set up the tying play. Williams nailed the three from the wing.
The Illini survived two missed Arizona shots in the closing seconds.
In overtime, a Powell layup with 2:57 left gave Illinois the lead for good. A three-pointer by Williams and Head’s layup pushed the advantage to six.
Arizona’s Hassan Adams scored five consecutive points, but his missed three-pointer ended the game and gave Illinois its first Final Four trip in 16 years.