“We are real proud of our accomplishments,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. “The tournament was not one of our goals that we talked about before [the season]. But once we got here and had a chance to play in the United Center in front of an Illini crowd, I think our guys got excited.”
By achieving victory in the championship game, Illinois (32-1) matched the conference record for wins in a season with the 1976 Indiana and 2000 Michigan State national championship squads.
Illinois small forward Roger Powell Jr. pitched a double-double on the afternoon with a 15-point, 12-rebound performance. The tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, center James Augustine, blocked three shots, skied for nine boards and posted a perfect 5-for-5 from the field for 12 points against Wisconsin.
“Our big men are one of our strengths,” guard Deron Williams said, noting the negative preseason attention paid to the Illinois frontcourt. “During the whole year they’ve showed [that] they’re definitely not our weakness.”
No Badger player scored in double figures. Wisconsin swingman Alando Tucker led the team with nine points. Senior frontcourt standout Mike Wilkinson, in particular, suffered an off day offensively. Guarded by Powell with help-side assistance from Augustine, the all-Big Ten forward shot just 1-for-7 in the game.
“They did a good job of making us work down there,” Wilkinson said of his trouble scoring in the post. “Every time we caught it, we were away from the block.”
Heralded Illini guard Dee Brown failed to score in the match, shooting 0-for-8 from the floor. Hampered by a severe toothache, the Big Ten Player of the Year has struggled ever since Illinois’ loss to Ohio State in its regular-season finale.
“I don’t think that he’s had a big slump like this in a long time,” Weber said. “He is still having some problems, so, hopefully, we can address that tomorrow and get that settled down as we go into the week.”
The Illini built upon an eight-point halftime lead to go up a game-high 16 on Wisconsin after a fast-break dunk by guard Luther Head with 8:48 left to play. Wisconsin — which shot a miserable 25.9 percent from the field — hit a patch of success, posting a 12-3 run over the course of just less than two-and-a-half minutes to pull within five points of Illinois.
Tucker hit his stride by igniting the Wisconsin run. The sophomore got things rolling with a baseline lay-up on the feed from forward Zach Morley. Tucker chipped in another three points from the top of the key to slice the margin back down to 10 with 5:45 left in the game. Sophomore guard Kammron Taylor added five more points on the following two possessions to make it 46-41, Illinois advantage, with a little more than four minutes to play.
The critical impasse of the game came when the Badgers received an opportunity after a pair of rare late misses by Williams. However, an off-balance jumper by Tucker on the ensuing possession didn’t drop. The Tucker miss ushered in a lengthy drought that endured until desperation forced Wisconsin to foul Illinois.
“We score on that and it gets real interesting, but that’s the way it goes,” Ryan said.
Appropriately, Powell and Augustine — whose performances allowed Illinois to control the lead for almost the entirety of play — put the Badgers’ hopes on ice from the charity stripe with six successful conversions in the final minute.
Wisconsin kept it tight early and even grabbed a 5-4 lead after an open baseline 3-pointer by Clayton Hanson 3:36 into the game. However, cold hands — particularly among the Badger frontcourt — and difficulties on the weak-side glass allowed Illinois to post a strong mid-period run. Wisconsin shot just 6-for-25 in the opening half while the Fighting Illini held starting forwards Wilkinson and Tucker scoreless.
At 17:38, Morley drained a 3-point shot to pull Wisconsin within seven. Shortly thereafter, Hanson popped his second trey of the game with 19.9 seconds remaining on the clock. Williams spoke last with a 19-foot jumper to give Illinois a 26-18 lead at the break.
Wisconsin advanced to the title game by winning its semifinal matchup with Iowa in dramatic fashion. With 3.7 seconds left in regulation, Hawkeye forward Greg Brunner tipped in an errant 3-pointer by forward Adam Haluska for the 56-56 equalizer.
Grabbing the inbound from Morley, Tucker exploded down court and fired up a 22-foot double-clutch jump shot to give the Badgers an 11th-hour victory over the sixth-seeded Hawkeyes.
“I just wanted to take long strides,” Tucker responded when asked to relate his mindset prior to hitting the game-winner. “The first dribble was kind of close, [so] the second one I pushed out in front of me and tried to catch up to the ball to try to get a chance to shoot it.”
“Morley made a great pass and I created a shot,” he added.
Wisconsin earned the right to face Iowa in the semifinals after beating Ohio State for the third time this season. Dismal shooting (39.3 percent) plagued the Badgers in the showdown, but a solid defensive effort forced Ohio State to shoot from the perimeter, where the Buckeyes landed just two of their 20 3-point looks on the night. Under the guard of Wilkinson, Ohio State power forward Terence Dials shot 6-for-12, yet pulled down only four boards in the 60-49 Wisconsin victory.