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ILLINOIS SHOOTS ITSELF IN THE FOOT

Illinois shot and shot and shot until it could shoot no more Monday night. In the end, the Illini shot down their chance at history.

The Illini's bombs-away approach didn't work as they took a Final Four-record 40 three-pointers and missed three key ones in the final 65 seconds of their 75-70 loss to North Carolina. Goodbye, national championship. Goodbye, NCAA-record 38th victory.

"We had open shots but our kids played themselves to exhaustion," said coach Bruce Weber. "You shoot all those threes, maybe you don't have legs at the end. If one of those goes, now the pressure is on them."

Luther Head and Deron Williams both missed from beyond the arc with North Carolina clinging to a 72-70 lead and Head misfired again when it was 73-70 with 16 seconds left.

"I was wide-open," Head said quietly. "Coach ran a great play, got me open and I had a great look. I just missed it."

Illinois tied the championship game record with 12 made threes but its shots were wildly inconsistent most of the night. The Illini made just 5 of 19 in the first half and 7 of 21 in the second half after canning their first four of the stanza.

The all-time tournament record for three-pointers attempted is 42, set by Long Island in a 1997 first-round game against Villanova. The previous Final Four mark was only 35 set by UNLV in the 1987 semifinals against Indiana. The most in a final had been just 30, by Kentucky in its overtime loss to Arizona in 1997.

Weber said he won't obsess over all the missed three-pointers. He's only going to point to the bigger picture and that shows his team went 37-2.

"What else can you say? (The Illinois season) goes down in history. Not only Illinois history but NCAA history," Weber said. "Tied for the most wins ever, get to the championship game. If you're not happy with this, I feel sorry for you because life ain't getting any better.

"I cried in front of the team (Sunday night), the night before the game. You don't want it to end. We knew this was going to be the last game. There were no more ballgames. You're sad it's going to be over. I'll remember the journey and it's been unbelieveable. I told our kids not to hang their heads because they're such a special group. It's been a blast."

Despite the big comeback, the Illini will forever fret their woeful first half. Illinois fell behind, 40-27, after shooting a season-low 27 percent (10 of 37).

"We fought in the second half like we should have," said guard Dee Brown. "It's unfortunate they got out to such a big lead and played so well in the first half. Credit them for playing great basketball in that half. We just didn't come out shooting the ball."

"It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth not getting to cut down the nets," said guard Deron Williams. "We didn't let our seniors go out with a bang like we wanted to."

The game marked just the third time all season Illinois had trailed at halftime. The Illini faced a six-point deficit in a January game at Purdue and a four-point hole in a February trip to Michigan.

"I didn't think we fought very hard in the first half," Weber said. "They wanted it more. It seemed more important to them. The second half, we wanted it more and came back. We went down fighting."

North Carolina senior Jackie Manuel on the surprise postgame locker room appearance by Michael Jordan and his college coach, Carolina legend Dean Smith: "The guys got a little nervous. We were all celebrating and it got quiet when Michael and Coach Smith came walking in. All the guys were looking around like, 'Are we supposed to talk?' It was great for them to come down and we all appreciate it."

Illinois has 37 all-time NCAA Tournament victories, the most of any team without a national title, and 1,519 wins in its 100-year history. That's sixth among schools without a title. Only St. John's, Temple, Penn, Notre Dame and Oregon State have more. . . . This was Illinois' fifth trip to the Final Four. The Illini finished third in 1949, 1951 and 1952 and lost in the semifinals in 1989.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com