4:00 PM ET, March 7, 2004
Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- During the darkest moments of the season, the Illinois players still believed. The payoff came Sunday for the Illini (No. 20 ESPN/USA Today, No. 18 AP).Deron Williams' free throw with 16.5 seconds left provided the final margin in Illinois' 64-63 win over Ohio State, securing the Illini's first outright Big Ten title in 52 years."Nothing comes easy for us," coach Bruce Weber said. "It hasn't come easy all year. We were 1-2 and 3-3 (in the Big Ten) and a lot of people doubted. But the players kept saying, 'Big Ten champs!' in every huddle, at practice, in games or whatever."And 11-1 later, here we are."The Illini (22-5, 13-3) dominated most of the game, leading by as many as 16 points in the first half and 17 in the second, before a furious Ohio State comeback in the final nine minutes."That was a little scary, wasn't it?" backup center Nick Smith said as he signed postgame autographs.Williams hit a free throw to give the Illini a 64-60 lead. Ohio State (14-15, 6-10) countered on a 3-pointer by Tony Stockman with 6.2 seconds remaining.After a timeout, the Illini inbounded to Williams, an 86 percent free-throw shooter, who was fouled with 5.2 seconds left.Williams missed the first of a one-and-one situation, however, and Ohio State's Terence Dials rebounded. Brandon Fuss-Cheatham brought the ball the length of the floor as time slipped away.He tried to slide past Illinois center James Augustine, but ran into his right side, the ball squirting loose as the final buzzer sounded."I was cringing that I might hear a whistle," Augustine said. "I saw somebody coming down the lane and I stepped to the side and put my hands up. He just lost the ball. I was nervous I would hear a whistle."The Illini had lost a critical game a year ago under similar circumstances."Obviously it wasn't a foul because the same thing happened to us last year at Wisconsin and the refs didn't call it," Williams said. "This year it went our way."Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien said he saw replays that showed Augustine reached in and knocked the ball away."I think he got fouled," O'Brien said, while admitting he was looking at the video through "tinted glasses."The Illini have won at least a share of a Big Ten title in three of the last four seasons and four of the last seven."We didn't play perfect basketball at the end, but I guess we had enough points to win the game by one," Weber said with a grin.Illinois players ran back on the floor at Value City Arena with the Big Ten trophy several minutes after the game ended, wearing T-shirts declaring their conference championship while celebrating with hundreds of supporters.Dee Brown led the Illini with 18 points, Williams had 14 and Luther Head 13 as the Illini won their 10th in a row -- their longest streak since winning the first 11 games of the 1989-90 season.It was also their 10th consecutive conference win, the best for the school since winning 13 in a row at the end of the 1954-55 season and the beginning of the 1955-56 Big Ten season.The Illini will be the top seed in the Big Ten tournament and play a Friday quarterfinal against the winner of No. 9 seed Ohio State and No. 8 Indiana.Dials scored 22 points for Ohio State. Stockman added 13 points.It wasn't until just over 13 minutes remained before Ohio State had more total field goals than 3-pointers made by the Illini.The Buckeyes were fortunate to get a shot off before the shot clock expired, but Stockman tossed up a high, arching 3-pointer that never caught metal with 2:32 left to cut it to 61-58.Brown hit a 12-foot fadeaway as the clock ticked to 2:00, but Ohio State came right back on Stockman's backdoor pass to Dials with 1:44 left to set up the wild finish."We probably got on our heels a little bit," Weber said. "I kept saying, 'Don't watch the clock. Just play."Thousands of Illinois fans made the trip, many in chartered buses. They celebrated by holding up signs that said, "Party Like It's 1952" after the game.Illinois also won its sixth Big Ten road game in a row. The last time that happened was in 1956.With the loss, Ohio State was all but assured of missing a postseason berth for the first time in six years. The Buckeyes played in four straight NCAA tournaments before losing in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament last year.
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