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ILLINOIS, CAROLINA VAULT TO FINAL
ILLINI'S RUN LEAVES LOUISVILLE FAR BEHIND

At halftime Saturday night, Illinois forward Roger Powell prayed. Across the room, guard Luther Head kept the faith that his shots would start to fall.

In the final 20 minutes, the two senior starters on the nation's best team made sure their magic centennial season would continue for one more night.

Powell and Head poured in 20 points apiece -- collecting 32 of Illinois' 41 second-half points in the process -- as the Illini overpowered Louisville, 72-57, in the first national semifinal before 47,754 in the Edward Jones Dome.

Illinois (37-1) tied the NCAA record for victories in a season and advanced to the championship game for the first time in the 100-year history of its basketball program. None of the three previous 37-win teams (Duke in 1986 and 1999 and UNLV in 1987) have won the championship, but Illinois will get its chance Monday night against North Carolina, which earned an 87-71 decision over Michigan State in the prime-time semifinal.

Powell had just two points in the first half as he played only five minutes after picking up two fouls. In the second half, he exploded for 18 points, hitting eight of 10 shots to finish 9 of 13 from the field.

Head had six points before intermission and 14 after it, connecting on his first four threes in the stanza. He finished 6 of 11 from long range, marking the first time anyone has hit six treys in a semifinal since Arizona's Mike Bibby did it against North Carolina in 1997.

"It just was going the second half," said Powell, a licensed Pentecostal minister nicknamed "The Rev" by his teammates. "It was a blessing. I really did pray at halftime and it seemed like it worked."

Louisville scored the first five points of the second half to take its only lead, 33-31, on Larry O'Bannon's two free throws with 18:27 to play. Powell gave Illinois the lead for good, 34-33, with a three-pointer 34 seconds later as the shot clock was ticking away.

On Illinois' next possession, Powell pulled off the game's signature play. Taking a three-pointer from the middle of the key, he bricked it short but bolted down the lane to slam home his own offensive rebound.

"'I just knew it was going to come off like that," Powell said. "I don't know why but I knew it."

"You don't see that too often," said Illinois center James Augustine.

Illinois struggled to a 31-28 halftime lead after hitting just 12 of 32 from the field and only 6 of 19 three-pointers. But the second half was a vintage offensive performance as the Illini were 15 of 24, including 6 of 11 from long range.

"We got better ball movement and we got it inside," said coach Bruce Weber. "Once you get it inside, you suck the defense in and now we're getting it to the open shooters. We told our guys after halftime that we don't mind shooting the threes but we wanted 'rhythm' threes and that's what we did."

The 6-foot-6 Powell, who finished one point shy of his season high, was unstoppable in the half as he set the tone by scoring his team's first nine points.

"When I was sitting out, I saw (backup center) Nick Smith getting some baskets and I saw Jack (Ingram) and James (Augustine) playing well so I was excited for them," Powell said. "But at halftime coach Weber said it was time to get going."

Even with Powell's outburst, the Cardinals hung around and pulled within a point (50-49) on Taquan Dean's three-pointer with 10:17 left. Then Louisville went cold and the Illini clinched the win with an 11-0 run.

Powell started it with a putback and Head quickly made it 58-49 with back-to-back threes on feeds from point guard Deron Williams.

Louisville (33-5) saw its 13-game winning streak end largely because its offense fell apart after averaging 82.5 points in its previous four NCAA games.

Forward Ellis Myles led Louisville with 17 points, but forward Francisco Garcia, averaging 21 points in the tournament, was held to a season-low four. Garcia hit just two of 10 shots as he was dogged by Head and Illinois point guard Deron Williams. Dean had 12 points but was just 4 of 15 from the field.

"Early on, Francisco didn't let the game come to him, got caught taking some difficult shots and it mushroomed that he wasn't on," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino.

"Deron and Luther did a great job in different stretches not letting Garcia get going," Weber said. "We really disrupted them."

The orange-clad Illinois fans were roaring over the final three minutes as the issue was decided. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Powell stood near midcourt pointing to the sky just as he did after Illinois' dramatic overtime win over Arizona in the Chicago regional final.

"I was pointing to Jesus and I was very thankful," Powell said. "I did it last game against Arizona and we won, and I needed to do it again."

Powell has one more chance to be thankful.

"We wrote 'April 4' on the board (in the locker room) about six or seven weeks ago," Weber said. "And we are playing April 4 for the national championship, so we're very excited."

e-mail:
mharrington@buffnews.com

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