Sunday April 3rd, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- These may be the Stylin' Illini, but please, for a moment, forget their flashiness.

Ignore everything glamorous about the 72-57, Final Four victory they recorded over No. 4-seed Louisville on Saturday night -- the 20 points and awe-inspiring follow-slam by forward Roger Powell Jr., the six 3s knocked down by Luther Head -- and instead, focus on what the No. 1 Illini took away. Because that was what was important. That was the secret behind advancing to the title game, moving to within one win of this Midwestern fairy tale's happy ending. Junior guard Deron Williams took nearly everything away from the Cardinals' All-American Francisco Garcia, who entered the national semifinals as his team's leading scorer (16.0 ppg) and leading assist man (3.9 apg) -- and who needed to be Rick Pitino's star if the 'Ville was going to end Illinois' Dream Season.

Garcia left the Edward Jones Dome, in what was likely the last game of his college career, with just four points and two assists.

To the athletic Louisville swingman, Williams -- as well as senior Head, who provided brief relief efforts -- were far from Stylin'. They were Annoyin'. Downright Suffocatin', even.

At 6-foot-7, Garcia was supposedly the Illini's biggest matchup nightmare -- Williams gave up four inches to the Cards' leader, who had scored 20 points in his team's first three 2005 NCAA tournament games. Garcia dropped in the Cards' first basket, on a backdoor layup that cut Illinois' lead to 6-2 in the opening minutes, but, as Williams correctly summed it up afterward ...

"That was really the only thing he got."

Williams, the least glitzy but most valuable of Illinois' guard trio, put Garcia in a vise -- he bodied him around every screen, had a hand in his grill at all times, and was, in Williams' own words, "the shadow." The Illini's defensive stopper blocked off a Garcia drive with 15:59 left in the first half, disrupted his shot, grabbed the rebound and hit a streaking Dee Brown for a layup at the other end to put Illinois up 10-5. Garcia finished the first half just 1-of-8 from the field, and 0-for-3 from 3-point land. He would take just two shots in the second half -- making one -- and his presence on the court was barely felt.

"I just tried to go out there and contain him," Williams said. "It was my job today -- it was my job the last two games -- to shut down the other team's best perimeter player. I just took that as a challenge."

Williams was Illinois' star in all departments -- defense, offense and motivation -- in the Miracle at Rosemont, last Saturday's unfathomable, 15-points-in-four-minutes comeback that stunned Arizona and left the nation in a state of disbelief.

In that game, he held Wildcats All-American Salim Stoudamire (the nation's No. 1 3-point man) to 2-for-13 shooting from the field. Without Williams' effort on D, the deficit the Illini faced would have been insurmountable.

With the score at 75-60, Williams told his teammates, "We're not going to lose this game," and then went and scored eight points -- and assisted on two Head 3s -- in the rally, tying the score at 80 and forcing overtime. Two more treys and three more assists later, he had officially carried the Illini into the Final Four. Williams' line on the day would read, 22 points, 10 assists, maximum moxie and infinite heroics.

After that superhuman effort, who cared if Williams was nearly absent in the scoring column against Louisville? Instead of ego-tripping on his Elite Eight stardom and forcing shots on offense, he dished out nine assists, and most importantly, locked down on Garcia. Williams cut the head off of the streaking Cardinals, taking the life out of a squad that was also laying claim to the "Team of Destiny" label after it shocked West Virginia with a 20-point comeback just hours before Illinois' thriller.

An offensive reprise was not required for Illinois to earn ownership rights to the destiny label. Simple, hardnosed D was enough -- Garcia shot 20 percent, and the rest of the Cards shot just 38.9. Part of Williams' destiny, it seems, is leaving opposing stars in his wake.

"[Deron's defense] wasn't a one-night thing," senior center Nick Smith said. "He did the same thing to Salim Stoudamire the last game. You're talking about two All-Americans, just completely shutting them down. He's a tough kid who takes it upon himself to lock up a team's best player and win the game by himself."

Williams knew, from the moment the Illini's March to the Arch was a sure thing -- once he came down from his post-Rosemont euphoria, at least -- that Garcia was his next assignment.

"He's a big part of their offense -- not only does he create for himself, he creates for everybody -- so I knew I had my hands full today and needed to stop him," Williams said.

Creation, for Garcia, was replaced by frustration.

"I think Francisco early on didn't let the game come to him -- he got caught taking some difficult shots, and then it mushroomed," Pitino said. "He was concerned about being off."

Garcia was reluctant to give Williams credit in the locker room afterward, only saying, "[Williams] was physical, but it was nothing I haven't faced this year. I just couldn't knock down my shots."

When the final, meaningless seconds were ticking off the Edward Jones Dome clock, the scoreboard reading 72-57 in the Illini's favor, Williams went over and shook a dejected Garcia's hand under the basket, and the two had a respectful conversation. With the Orange-hued crowd roaring its salute, it was a bittersweet moment for the outgoing Cardinal, who would only say that the words exchanged were "confidential."

"I don't think he really wanted to say much after the game," Williams said.

And really, what could he say? Williams' defense had done all the talking.

These Illini have forged their legend on sharing -- becoming the greatest perimeter passing team in the nation -- and style -- from Brown's bouncing braids, to Head's arcing 3s, to Williams' breathtaking assists, to Powell's religious, skyward-pointing, postgame salutes.

Saturday night, however, was more about denial than it was about style. It was the kind of performance that wins ... the very honor that will be on the line Monday night.

The next and final foe, North Carolina -- and its five future NBA draft picks -- presents the Illini's greatest challenge in their magical season. Destiny may be on the side of the Orange, but such whimsy only goes so far.

On Monday, a fitting defensive encore -- with Williams as the ringleader -- will be in order for Illinois.

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