By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Brett Koshkin
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Riverfront Times
By Danny Wicentowski
By Pete Kotz
Though the shoe story was destined for the pages the Post-Dispatch (courtesy of Unreal's favorite scribe, Todd C. Frankel), the fact that the Pope perished over Final Four weekend seemed an afterthought to pretty much everyone downtown except Gus.
There were definitely more orange-clad Illini fans at Monday's big tilt -- best T-shirt: "We Love Head" (as in Illini guard Luther) -- but Tar Heel blues were hardly as sparse as the refreshments in the upper press box.
Though their team trailed 40-27, the Illini faithful betrayed scant anxiety at halftime. After all, their boys had erased a fifteen-point deficit in the space of four minutes a week earlier in a regional elimination game against a very talented Arizona team, and here a full twenty minutes remained to chip away.
Chip away the Illini did, finally -- inevitably? -- knotting the score at 70 with two minutes to go by way of a slew of three-balls by fellow veteran guard Head and Deron Williams, abetted by the heroic offensive rebounding of undersize senior frontline players Roger Powell and Jack Ingram. When less-talented teams win titles -- and despite its number-one ranking, the Illini were dramatically less talented than Roy Williams' roster of NBA players-in-waiting -- it's always a player like Ingram who turns in the performance of his career.
But the Illini would not score in the final two minutes. Two threes by Williams, so cool under pressure throughout the tourney, hit the back iron, and an errant pass by the gutsy Head found its way into the hands of opposing point guard Raymond Felton to seal the Illini's fate.
Outside the locker room after the game, a holding pen of broadcast media not-so-patiently awaited permission to enter the losers' den. So intent were they upon capturing the "spontaneous" agony of defeat, they all but ignored such prominent passersby as coach Bruce Weber, Deron Williams, Head and teary-eyed national player of the year Dee Brown, who looked the most demoralized of them all as he was shuttled via golf cart to the interview room alongside his backcourt mates.
Unreal passed the NYT's William C. Rhoden on the walk to the interview room. Munching on some baked goods, Rhoden eschewed the losers' last words in favor of the powder-blue celebration still transpiring out on the court. In the somber interview room, reporters lobbed softballs to Weber and his trio -- "Your fans were really great, weren't they?" Only the P-D's Bryan Burwell approached anything resembling the heart of the matter, essentially asking Weber how he consoles a player like Head who more or less chokes away a big game.
"I cried, he cried. And I hugged him," replied the coach, cementing his status as a genteel New Age standard bearer for the post-Bobby Knight era.
Weber, who'd presided over the Illinois bench in a fabulously tacky orange blazer, was then asked about the performance of center James Augustine, who managed to foul out in a mere nine minutes of floor time, netting zero points and setting the stage for fill-in Ingram's unlikely heroics.
Said Weber: "James is not gonna have great memories of St. Louis."
Nor will fans and players who struck out for the Arch from Louisville and East Lansing. Yes, for all the adoration the NCAA publicly showered upon the host city, St. Louis is destined to be remembered as a basketball crime scene by many who took part in the weekend's festivities.
But not Unreal.
As midnight approached, a group of Tar Heel rowdies blocked traffic on Fourth Street in front of the Adam's Mark Hotel, awaiting the arrival of the champs' bus. Right about then, noticing the incipient symptoms of a spring flu, Unreal felt more kinship with the passed-out Illini fan we'd seen being tended to by emergency medics outside the Morgan Street Brewery on the Landing.
In a few days downtown will slumber once more. A sea of Cardinal red will descend upon Busch Stadium one final time to root on the boys of summer. Then the Rams, our carpetbaggers of the gridiron, will punctuate fall's weekends at the Dome. Winter will herald the return of the moribund NHL, sharing Savvis Center space with the basketball Billikens as Saint Louis University continues its struggle to finance its own new arena.
And there Unreal will be, solitary and sober, at a table not far from the visitors' bench, pining for the very Madness that landed us in the infirmary.