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This day in Wildcat history: Arizona men’s basketball advances to Final Four after 87-81 win over Illinois

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Illinois' Sergio McClain dives for the ball after being pushed by Arizona's Justin Wessel (30) in the NCAA Midwest Region Final in San Antonio, Texas, Sunday, March 25, 2001. Arizona beat Illinois 87-81 and advance to the Final Four.

You fill out your bracket every March with the hope of seeing the best teams in the later rounds of the tournament battle it out for a championship. Most of the time that doesn’t happen as your pick to win the dance crumbles to a Cinderella team and spoils that desired No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the Regional finals. But that was not the case in 2001.

The Wildcats men's basketball team had faced off against Illinois two times earlier in that season, a rare sight to see two non-conference teams play against each other multiple times in one season. The Wildcats got the best of Illinois in the first game at the Maui Invitational, but the Illini would get their redemption in round two just a month later, setting up the highly anticipated rubber match between the two heavyweights. 

On this day 19 years ago, the No. 2 Arizona Wildcats began to taste its first Final Four appearance since 1997 as they clutched on to a 78-73 lead over No. 1 Illinois in the 2001 Midwest Regional final.   

Illinois guard Corey Bradford raced to the basket with 52.2 seconds left in an attempt to trim the lead and keep the Illini within reach. Bradford felt his hopes dwindle away after his shot was sent back by Arizona center Loren Woods, picking up his seventh block of the game.

With the Wildcats’ bench locking arms and swaying left and right, the seven-foot senior would make four of the Wildcats nine free throws in the final minute to seal the game and send Arizona to the Final Four.  

Woods finished the game with 18 points, five rebounds and seven blocks; he was just a piece of the Wildcats’ success that night. Arizona guard and former NBA star Gilbert Arenas scored 21 points on 7-13 shooting while Jason Gardner put up 18 points, 5 assists and four rebounds. 

"I just kept thinking about Maui over and over again with how they nearly did us in," Arizona forward Justin Wessel said. "People started getting excited on the bench, but I told them, 'Hold on, there's still a lot of time left.' They have cut it before and God knows we don't want that to deal with that again."

The 2000-01 Arizona Wildcats could be described as one of the program’s best teams. The roster also included former NBA players Richard Jefferson, Michael Wright and Luke Walton all under the helm of legendary coach Lute Olson.  

"We keep using the word 'family' with the way that we have come together,” Woods said following the victory.

The Wildcats dedicated the win to their hustle and hard work, but that’s not how the No. 1-seeded Big Ten champions saw it.

"Whenever you lose in the NCAA tournament, it seems to me it's because something screwy happens," former Illinois coach and current Kansas head coach Bill Self told the Chicago Tribune.

Illinois saw six of its players foul out before the final buzzer as the Illini fell victim to 36 foul calls that night. The Wildcats took advantage of the whistles, making 43 of its 53 free throws.

“They wouldn’t let us play,” Illinois senior Marcus Griffin told the News-Gazette after his final game. “They called all the bumps and put the game on the free throw line. We’re veterans, and we should have adjusted. They told us they’d call all the bumps down low. I think part of it was our reputation, us being from the Big Ten.”

Illinois’ tournament collapse could have also been attributed to Frank Williams having a hangover from the Sweet Sixteen matchup in which he dropped 30 points in their win over No. 4-seeded Kansas. Williams slumped in the following game and went cold against Arizona, shooting 3-of-15 with just nine points. 

Controversy or not, the Arizona Wildcats prevailed and headed to Minneapolis to play in their fourth Final Four game in the last 13 years. Arizona would go on to defeat Michigan State 80-61 before falling to Duke in the NCAA championship game.  


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