Illinois basketball was hungry for big-time national respect in 1989. They were a consistent, winning program under Lou Henson and had been in the national conversation. But being in the national conversation hadn’t translated into big-time wins. The Illini hadn’t reached the Final Four since 1952 and the previous three years had seen them lose on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Even if you go back two more years, you still find disappointment and heartbreak. In 1985, a team that was college basketball’s preseason #1 ended its season in the Sweet 16. And in 1984, Illinois lost a gutwrenching regional final at Kentucky when the Wildcats were allowed to play in the regional hosted at Rupp Arena. It was time for 1989 Illinois basketball to do more and they had the horses in the stable to do it with.
Henson’s team was stacked with tremendous athletes. Kenny Battle, Nick Anderson, Stephan Bardo and Kendall Gill were talented leapers and polished players in the post and off the dribble. While they each had their distinct roles—Gill ran the offense, Bardo was a perimeter player, Anderson went down low and Battle a pure small forward—they were all versatile.
To this group, Henson added high school All-America Marcus Liberty, cut from the same cloth. Illinois opened the season ranked ninth in the country.
The team looked ready to fulfill all the expectations, which included regular season objectives. Illinois hadn’t gotten as much as a piece of the Big Ten title since 1984 and hadn’t won the league outright since ’52. In an era and a region of the country where the regular season championship is more highly valued than is the case today, that was an omission that needed correction.
Illinois took a 12-0 record into January and had moved up to #3 in the polls. The record 17-0 and moved them to #1. The 18th game also produced a big win—a double-overtime non-conference victory over Georgia Tech. But it came at a high cost. Gill broke his foot, and while he would return, it would cost him twelve games. Illinois promptly dropped three of their next four and their seemingly certain Big Ten championship started to slip away.
Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers were having a miracle year—both the overachievement of a less talented team and a sequence of dramatic victories. Illinois was able to beat Indiana twice—including an epic battle in Bloomington, when Anderson turned the tables on IU and hit a half-court shot to break a tie score at the buzzer, but the injury to Gill gave Knight’s team the opening it needed to win the conference crown outright.
Conference title or not, the biggest goal—a trip to Seattle and the Final Four—was still in the cards—and with Gill back, Illinois closed the season strong. They finished 25-4, only a game back in the Big Ten and two games ahead of a talented, but enigmatic Michigan team that never quite put it together and who seemed in chaos on the brink of the NCAA Tournament as their head coach took another job and was told to make himself scarce.
As far as Illinois went though, the respect they craved came from the NCAA Selection Committee. In spite of the Big Ten standings, Illinois was given the #1 seed in the Midwest over Indiana. The reason was likely a combination of a slow start in non-conference play for the Hoosiers, the two head-to-head victories of the Illini, and the tendency of the Selection Committee to factor in losses due to the absence of an injured player who has since returned.
Henson could not have been happy with the first-round game, as his kids toyed with McNeese State before winning 77-71. They followed it up with a 72-60 win over Ball State. If nothing else, Illinois had survived the tune-ups and were back in the Sweet 16. But they were going to have to up the ante when the regionals started in Minneapolis, because the Midwest proved to be a power bracket, where all four favorites advanced. There would be no breaks for anyone en route to the Final Four.
Illinois’ Sweet 16 game was against Louisville. The Cardinals were led by senior center Pervis Ellison, who’d guided his team to a national title as a freshman and gained the nickname “Never Nervous” in the process. But the Cards missed the NCAAs the following year and were ousted in this same round a year earlier. They had the athletes to match up with Illinois and a coach, Denny Crum, whose March resume vastly exceeded that of Henson’s.
Rebounding would be the difference. Illinois hit the glass hard and beat Louisville 35-26 on the boards. Anderson scored 24 points, while Liberty came up big with a 14 points/8 rebounds game when his team really needed him, as Battle struggled. The game was close at the half, but Illinois turned that three-point cushion into a fourteen-point win by the time Friday night was complete.
There was one more game for the Final Four and it would be one of the more underrated regional finals in NCAA Tournament lore. Syracuse was the two-seed in the bracket and had beaten Missouri in an exciting, fast-paced Friday night game. Syracuse was only two years removed from reaching the NCAA final and losing by one point to Indiana in one of the great championship games ever played.
Head coach Jim Boeheim had two of the key players on that team still on the roster, with playmaking guard Sherman Douglass and rebounding machine Derrick Coleman. Both had long NBA careers ahead of them and each had scored 20-plus points in the Missouri game. Added to that was forward Billy Owens, who’d knocked down a 25/8 in the Sweet 16 victory. There were going to be a lot of athletes on the floor for Sunday’s regional final and Illinois again had to beat a team that was battle-tested in March.
Syracuse was ready and built a 46-39 lead by halftime. The good news for Illinois is that they were shooting the ball well, again getting after it on the glass and Battle was back in form, en route to a 28-point game. Anderson had a huge day with 24 points/16 rebounds, while Gill scored 18, dished five assists and still grabbed eight rebounds, showing the nation exactly what Illinois had missed by his absence.
Illinois shot 60 percent for the game, but it still came down the wire. Syracuse got big games from its core players, along with key contributions from Matthew Roe and Stephen Thompson. They shot 61 percent themselves. The crowd at the Metrodome was treated to a rapid-paced game marked by high offensive execution and tremendous athleticism. In short, they got their money’s worth and for Illinois it was all worth it when an 89-86 win sent them to the Final Four.
The run would end on Semi-Final Saturday. Michigan’s pre-tournament chaos had been transformed into magic, as interim coach Steve Fisher found a way to connect with his team and the Wolverines finally started playing to their talent level. They had a quality big man in Loy Vaught and a true post player was something this Illinois team had a tough time matching up with. Their Final Four game was still a barnburner and not settled until the closing seconds. The 83-81 loss might have denied the Illini the national title. But the 1989 Illinois basketball had finally produced the big wins on the national stage and returned their school to the Final Four.