- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 3, 2005

ST. LOUIS — It took a big man to lead Illinois to the NCAA’s championship game.

Illinois’ famed three-guard lineup gave way to forward Roger Powell Jr. in last night’s 72-57 semifinal victory over Louisville before 47,754 at Edward Jones Dome. Powell’s second-half dominance underneath paced two Illini runs that sealed the win.

“Roger just stepped up with a great second half,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “Our big guys were very productive.”

Illinois (37-1) meets North Carolina for the title tomorrow night. The loss ended a nation-leading 13-game winning streak for Louisville (33-5).

Guards Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head paced Illinois this season. The three combined for 33 points against Louisville, Head scoring 20. But it was the dominating stretches by Powell that proved decisive.

Powell scored 12 points in less than five minutes early in the second half and added another two baskets during a late run in finishing with 20 points and five rebounds. Louisville never recovered.

“I prayed at halftime,” said Powell, an ordained minister. “It seemed to work. It just bounced my way.”

Head put it this way: “Roger just took the game in his hands.”

Louisville never mounted an extended offensive run. Conversely, the Cardinals suffered two extended scoring droughts to undermine any comeback hopes while finishing with just two fastbreak points and four second-chance points.

Forward Ellis Myles’ 17 points led Louisville, but the Cardinals shot just 38.9 percent. Forward Francisco Garcia scored just four points, and forward Juan Palacios didn’t attempt a shot.

“I think the background made it hard for us to pick up the basket,” Garcia said. “It made it look a lot closer than it was. We kept hitting it short.”

Illinois converted 12 of 30 3-pointers to break Louisville’s 2-3 zone midway through the second half. Head made six of 11 3-pointers as Illinois stayed outside when not relying on Powell.

“We take the open shot, and the three was open,” Head said.

Illinois led 31-28 at halftime with strong defenses preventing any offensive flow on either end. Each team had promised to run past the other, but neither shook loose as each made barely one-third of its shots. Louisville couldn’t evade Illinois’ pesky man coverage. The Illini were unable to penetrate the Cardinals’ 2-3 defense.

Louisville opened the second half with five straight points for its first lead at 33-31. This only seemed to arouse Powell, who scored Illinois’ next nine points for a 40-37 edge.

Suddenly, offenses began dominating as the pace quickened. Powell capped a 12-point effort in less than five minutes with a 3-pointer as Illinois stretched its lead to 50-44.

The Cardinals wouldn’t buckle but also couldn’t counterpunch effectively. After Louisville closed to 50-49, its sloppy rebounding let Illinois grab a loose ball for a quick basket that sparked an 8-0 run.

Illinois held Louisville scoreless over 5:02 for a 61-49 lead. The double-digit margin wasn’t broken again.

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