The 2005 Illinois basketball team featured an absurdly good and entertaining trio of guards in Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and Luther Head. They ripped through the Big Ten and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they met Arizona in the Midwest regional final.
The Wildcats dominated for more than 36 minutes of play, riding standout performances by Channing Frye and Hassan Adams to a 77-63 lead with only 3:28 to play. Then something flipped for the Illini.
Head made a 3-pointer, then fed Brown for five quick points. He came up with a steal and a layup to cut the lead to seven with 1:21 to play. Arizona traded three free throws for a Williams bunny and a Head triple. Williams pilfered another ball and set Brown up for two. The lead was down to three. Once again the Illini swiped the inbound pass and Williams calmly stepped up for a top-of-the key three to knot things at 80-80.
It felt as though the roof was going to come off the Allstate Arena as the home-state fans understandably lost their minds. Somehow Arizona wasn't buried by the momentum and almost matched scores in overtime. But when Adams missed a last-second three in the final seconds, Illinois emerged through the smoke with a Final Four bid.
To this day, it is one of the most improbable rallies in the history of the tournament. And with such large stakes!
The Illini would go on to lose to North Carolina in the national championship. Michigan State, in 2000, is still the last Big Ten side to win it all.
Head played seven under-the-radar years in the NBA, averaging 8.2 points. Brown saw action in only 68 games, but I maintain was the best collegiate player. Williams was the most successful at the next level, making three All-Star games and leading the league in assists three times.
Two lessons remain from this furious flurry 15 years later. First, never give up. Secondly, never gamble. It'll only break your heart.