Edit: This was written in 2010. March 26, 2015 if the 10-year anniversary of this game.
Where were you five years ago?
If you’re not sure let me give you a one-word clue:
Yes, that game, five years ago this past Friday. Even if you weren’t in Illinois you know exactly where you were and how you felt. We didn’t know it at the time but we were witnessing even more than a monumental comeback/collapse.
It was the day the Lute Olson Era died.
You can point to Lute’s failing health and a dip in recruiting as the technical causes for the slide at the end of Coach Olson’s tenure but this game was the axis-shifting moment. If missing the tournament in 2010 was rock bottom, the 2005 Illinois game was the ship hitting the iceberg.
The 2005 Wildcats were really good. Thirty wins for only the third time under Lute. An 11th Pac-10 championship. An NCAA tournament seed of 4 or better for the 16th time in 18 years. A fourth Sweet 16 in five years and the seventh in 10 years.
All gone, and none of it has been back since.
To commemorate the anniversary I did something for the entire Wildcat Universe. I rewatched the game. That’s right, from start to agonizing finish, I watched so you don’t have to. I hope you never see it again, or at least not until we’re celebrating the fifth anniversary of Sean Miller’s fifth national championship.
(But if you really want to be a punishment glutton, here you go.)
I started with the end of the Oklahoma State game to remind me how close we were to missing the Elite Eight entirely. The chalk said the ‘05 run should have ended right there. The 3-seed battles hard but loses to the 2-seed. No shame there. But Salim Stoudamire had other ideas.
The brooding lefty with the wild hair was incredible in the final five minutes. He scored 10 of the Cats’ final 15 points without a miss. Stoudamire’s game-winner would make the short list of greatest moments in UA sports history if it didn’t take place two days before the absolute worst moment.
Let’s reset the scene. Rosemont, Illinois, just outside Chicago, a mere 153 miles from the University of Illinois campus. The Illini were 35-1 and the arena was packed with loud people wearing orange.
The game went back and forth early. Illinois eventually built a seven-point first-half lead, but the Cats cut it to two before halftime behind the inside/outside play of Channing Frye, Hassan Adams and Ivan Radenovic. Salim Stouramire was struggling, going 0-for-4 from the floor.
Bill Murray got a lot of camera time, rooting for the home team. Now his son is on the Arizona staff and Bill’s on our side. So we got that going for us, which is nice.
Dick Enberg and Jay Bilas were calling the game for CBS and as the second half progressed it was eerie seeing how prophetic they were. “Arizona’s gotta be stronger with the ball,” Nostradabilas said with 13 minutes left. “Those traps are bothering the Wildcats.”
With about eight and a half minutes left Bilas said, “He (Jawann McClellan) got fouled,” to which Enberg replied, “They’re letting them go.”
Channing Frye hit a 3 with six minutes left to push the lead to 12. His final line: 24 points, 12 rebounds, 6 blocks. It was such a joy to watch Channing develop for four years. It’s great to see him finding pro success with the Suns.
With 4:04 left, McClellan made two free throws to make it 75-60 in favor of the Cats. Right about this time my friend looks at me and says, “We’re going to the Final Four!” Never, ever turn your back on Arizona Athletics.
A turnover in the frontcourt with 12 seconds left on the shot clock lets Illinois cut the lead to seven with 1:25 left. With 48 seconds left 90% shooter Stoudamire passes to Mustafa Shakur near midcourt only to see Shakur get stripped. The subsequent inbounds pass to Frye becomes the freeze-frame image for the referee-blaming segment of UA fans.
At this point the Wildcats are clearly shell-shocked and logic goes out the window. On the final possession of regulation with the score tied Salim dribbles down the clock up top like he always did but then he passes to McClellan for the last shot. I don’t care if you’re 2-for-37. That’s your shot.
The final 11.8 seconds of overtime were equally puzzling. Arizona is only down one and still has a chance to pull out the win. The ball is inbounded to Shakur who passes to Adams on the right wing. Salim stands on the left perimeter and doesn’t move. Channing walks down to the left block and doesn’t move. Hassan doesn’t make his move until there are three seconds left and he has to force up an off-balance shot from the top of the key that bounces off the backboard like it was fired by a catapult.
And then the Wildcat world stopped breathing. As fans it took a long time to get over. As a program we’re still trying to dig our way out.
But for the first time in five years we have hope.
In Derrick Williams we have a big man who has the potential to rival Channing Frye’s production. In MoMo Jones we have a budding leader with a flair for the dramatic. But most importantly we have in Sean Miller a coach who has proven he can build conference champions and win games in March.
Where were we five years ago? In a dark, dark place.
Where will we be in five years?
Don’t turn your back on Arizona Athletics.