He grins like a cartoon character. He begins most of his sentences—and this may not have anything to do with his hailing from Okay, Okla.—by saying. "O.K." His idea of a great time is playing bridge for 13½ hours. Despite all that, and despite the grotesque architecture of the Lou 'do—his inimitable coif—under Illinois coach Lou Henson's two-tone thatch lies one okeydokey basketball mind.
Like the Henson comb-over, the Illinois team bound for Seattle is thin, on the small side and adding steadily to its legend. Just minutes into their semifinal game with Louisville on Friday in the Midwest Regional in Minneapolis—and with 6'6" forward Kenny Battle already limping on a bum knee—the Illini watched their 6'7" center. Lowell Hamilton, crumple with an ankle injury. Still, they wore down the Cardinals and won 83-69. Then, trailing Syracuse by 13 points with 6:47 in the first half of Sunday's final and by seven at the start of the second half, Illinois put together an 11-4 run and went on to win 89-86. The Illini were so deliriously happy at the finish that they improvised a rap song, right out on the floor, in midpandemonium. Henson—Can't forget Lou, he's the head of the crew—probably thought this was some newfangled variation on a barbershop quartet. Ah, kids today.
Its not that coach and players aren't on the same wavelength. They all swear by hard work and togetherness and Henson's painstaking preparation. It's just that sometimes, while the players are grooving to their Walkmans, he's hearing a Victrola. Last week Henson did all he could to downplay Illinois's sorry recent performances in the NCAAs, including a loss to Austin Peay two years ago and a late-game disintegration against Villanova last spring. "That's for people in the pool halls to talk about," he said. But forward Nick Anderson, who would win the Most Outstanding Player award for the regional with 48 points and 21 rebounds over the two games, wasn't buying his coach's assessment. "We know from the past that in the tournament Illinois folds up." said Anderson. "We won't be over the hump unless we win it all."
April 2, 1989
Count on Anderson, Hamilton. Battle, et al. to slide back down that hump should anything happen to 6'4" point guard Kendall Gill. Gill is the organ through which the Illini breathe. They're 23-0 when he has played this season, and they were 8-4 during the five weeks he was out with a broken left foot. Gill is part bellwether and part talisman—a sort of Lou 'do doll, if you will. On defense he turns the screws on the opposing point guard, leaving his thieving backcourt mate, Steve Bardo, free to roam. At the other end he directs the simple Illinois attack, a series of picks designed to induce a man-to-man defense to switch. He then makes sure the ball gets to the player who has the most exploitable mismatch.
Until last weekend that was usually Battle. But during a shootaround the day before facing Louisville, K.B. wiped out on a puddle formed by water that had seeped through the Metrodome's Teflon roof. He minced through his patterns on that twisted knee against the Cardinals, who almost pulled even at 54-53 in the second half. That's when the 6'5" Anderson took over. On three straight possessions he took the ball into the lane, schooling 6'9" Pervis Ellison twice and 7-foot Felton Spencer once. Each shot was a soft looper, and they all had what Anderson calls "the finishing touch." Said Bardo, "Believe it or not, those are mismatches. Nick's too big and strong for a guard, and too quick for a forward or a center."
Said Anderson, in all modesty, "I feel when I get it low—and I got to be honest with you—I feel I can't be stopped."
This sort of height-be-damned attitude has its perils—Louisville blocked 13 Illinois shots—but then, the Lou crew has few alternatives. "Big guys have been blocking our shots all year," says Gill. "So we just have to get more shots." Enter the aggressive Illini defense.
Who needs a center when your point guard plays like one in the forecourt? Gill scored the first Illinois hoop of the Syracuse game on a put-back, and he dunked a Battle miss in the final 2½ minutes. After the Orangemen's Sherman Douglas threw in a three-pointer to narrow the Illini's lead to 87-86, Syracuse sent Illinois sophomore Marcus Liberty to the line for a one-and-one with 20 seconds remaining. Gill took his spot beside the foul lane. "I was saying to Marcus before the shot how we'd come too far and worked too hard to lose now," said Gill afterward, his jersey long since bloodied from a fierce upper lip thrown to the elbow of Syracuse forward Derrick Coleman. "I guess that gave me an extra shot of adrenaline."
Evidently. As Liberty's free throw caromed off the back of the rim, Gill levitated over the Orangemen's Stephen Thompson, ran down the ball and got it to Battle. Syracuse had to foul again, and Battle—after whispering, "Money!" to his teammates—knocked down each end of the one-and-one. Illinois outrebounded, outshot, outstole and even outalley-ooped Syracuse, which had edged Missouri 83-80 in the semis, to send the sourest Orange of them all, coach Jim ("This isn't fun, this is our job") Boeheim, off into the sunset.
As the only regional top seed to advance to Seattle and the only team to make its way to the Kingdome exclusively by way of domes (before playing in the Metrodome, Illinois played its subregional games in the Hoosier Dome), the Flying Illini are the logical favorites—notwithstanding the expert opinion of Michigan football chauvinist and athletic director Bo Schembechler, who may have gotten his team in deep Lou 'do by announcing that the Wolverines "wanted" Illinois. "Good," said Illini assistant coach Dick Nagy. "They got 'em. Anyway, I thought Bo wanted to coach football. He ought to put on shoes and shorts and try to guard Nick low."
Nagy was considerably more exercised than his boss, who wasn't exactly throwing his hat, or even his 'do, into the air. "O.K., I probably could have pulled my sportcoat off and run up and kissed people," said Henson, who guided New Mexico State to the Final Four in 1970. "But I've been through it before. Some of these guys won't be here again. So I'm pleased for them."
At this point Henson's wife, Mary, stepped in and, while patting the 'do, announced that he would be taking out the garbage tomorrow morning. Henson likened a trip to the Final Four to making seven no-trump in bridge. Then he called out to the stragglers remaining in the Illinois locker room. "O.K., if we hurry, we can make it back [to Champaign] for Murder, She Wrote!" And he grinned the goofy grin.