With four-tenths of a second left, guard Devin Harris missed a free throw that would have given Wisconsin the Big Ten title outright.
Fortunately for Harris and the Badgers, however, the 6-foot-3 guard had another chance.
Harris swished his second attempt, giving No. 24 UW a 60-59 lead over No. 14 Illinois. More importantly, however, Harris’ foul shot gave Wisconsin its first set of consecutive Big Ten titles since 1923-24.
“No doubt in my mind, the second one was going in,” Harris told reporters after the game.
As the buzzer sounded, Wisconsin students rushed the court to celebrate Wisconsin’s first conference championship since 1947.
After Wisconsin shared the Big Ten Championship with Indiana, Illinois and Ohio State a year earlier, the game between Wisconsin and Illinois on March 5, 2003, was one for the ages as the Badgers battled for the chance to claim sole possession of the crown.
Bill Self and the Illini were looking for the same thing as the two teams each entered the contest with 11-4 records in conference play.
With so much on the line, the crowd provided an atmosphere unlike any other regular season game, as Self told reporters after the game.
“This was better than any NCAA (Tournament) atmosphere,” he said. “This was as good an atmosphere as I’ve ever been a part of. The wrong team won. Other than that, it was a great game.”
Illinois’ potent one-two punch of forward Brian Cook and guard Dee Brown proved difficult for the Badgers to handle on the defensive end as they combined for 45 points, 11 rebounds and 3 assists. Five others combined for 14 points.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, was much more balanced offensively.
Four Badgers scored in double figures, including forward Kirk Penney, who led UW with 14 points on 5-for-13 shooting from the field. Harris was next, with 13 points, while grabbing a game-high nine rebounds.
In the end, however, it came down to a Bo Ryan-era trademark: free-throw shooting.
As they have many times in Ryan’s career at Wisconsin, the Badgers made more free throws in the game than the Illini attempted. Illinois was just 9-for-14 while Wisconsin made 15-of-19 from the line.
Harris’ game-winning free throw came because of a late-game foul call that many — including the Milwaukee native himself — did not expect. Following the game, Harris was still upset he never got the shot off, despite hitting the game-winning free throw.
Honorable mentions: 2009 men’s basketball upset of Duke, 2003 football upset of Ohio State, 2005 football upset of Michigan, 2000 men’s basketball Elite Eight victory over Purdue.
Wisconsin has been a part of some thrilling games in the last decade, but none matched the passion and excitement shown in the 2003 victory over Illinois. All four games mentioned above came close, but only one could match the 2003 victory in importance; yet, it fell short in the excitement of the game itself.