So close: Arizona was destined for Final Four until Illinois showed up

With the sports world on hold, Cronkite News will take a daily look at this day in sports history and reflect on some of the biggest moments in Arizona sports.

PHOENIX – Some people still call it the greatest Elite Eight game ever. Some still feel nauseous when they dare think about it.

Some, like Channing Frye, have learned to compartmentalize the heartache that ensued.

“Unfortunately during that game we fell apart,” Frye said of the University of Arizona’s monumental March Madness collapse against Illinois that occurred on this day in 2005.

Logo for Arizona Sports Rewind, with images of sports players from major sports overlaying the sunset in the shape of the state.

For much of the second half that fateful day, it sure seemed like the Wildcats were destined for a trip to the Final Four. In front of a raucous, orange-clad crowd at Allstate Arena near Chicago, barely 150 miles from the Fighting Illini’s campus in Champaign, No 3 seed Arizona came out gunning after the break and spun a 15-point lead with four minutes remaining.

It was the largest deficit the Illini, seeded No. 1, had faced the entire season. It also felt like the Illini’s dream year – 29-1 in 30 regular-season games – was spinning wildly out of control.

Then from the left wing, Illinois guard Luther Head drilled a 3, slashing the Wildcats’ lead to 11. The hometown crowd stirred. With 48 seconds left, Arizona committed a turnover that culminated with Dee Brown’s fastbreak layup, cutting the deficit to 80-77. Jaws dropped.

And then, off a full court press, Illinois’ Jack Ingram tipped Frye’s inbounds pass, the ball found Deron Williams and, over Frye’s outstretched arms, Williams dropped in another 3 to tie the game at 80-80. Bedlam took hold.

Just like that, what minutes earlier appeared to be an almost sure Final Four appearance for the Wildcats crumbled into a stunning reversal of fortune. The Illini continued its blistering array of treys in overtime, peeling off a frenetic 90-89 victory. Dubbed “the people’s champs” by smitten announcers, Illinois and its quirky three-guard lineup went on to beat Louisville in the Final Four semifinals before losing to a superiorly talented North Carolina team in the National Championship.

Fifteen years later, some of the sting from that brutal Wildcats’ loss has finally dissipated for the players who witnessed and suffered through it up close.

“The regional final from 2005 was an amazing experience. The atmosphere was electric and the concentration level was exceptional,” said Arizona’s Salim Stoudamire. “Unfortunately we collapsed and fell short of our goal, but the bond that my team and I had during that time was tremendous. I’m forever thankful.”

Stoudamire and Frye, both seniors, were known as the “dynamic duo” that year. With Frye at center and Stoudamire at guard, their ability to mesh well together played a large role in Arizona’s 30-7 regular-season mark.

“As a senior with Salim and Matt Brase we only talked about making it to the Final Four, to continue the tradition of winning,” Frye said. “The Illini had a stacked back court that got hot and they took advantage of our doubt. I’d go back with that same 2005 team and play Illinois 100 (times) and I think we would split the games 50/50.”

Frye had a monster game in that Elite Eight heartbreaker, a 7-footer scoring from all over the court in the second half. He finished with 24 points on just 14 shots, pulled down 12 rebounds and had six blocked shots.

Although they weren’t able to fulfill their dream of making it to the Final Four, both Frye and Stoudamire went on to have prosperous careers in the NBA. Frye was drafted eighth overall in the 2005 first round by the New York Knicks and Stoudamire was taken in the second round (31st overall) by the Atlanta Hawks. Frye recently retired after 14 years in the league with six different teams, including the Phoenix Suns, while Stoudamire played three seasons with the Hawks before bouncing around various leagues.

Both agree on this: Some of their fondest memories were made playing for the Wildcats.

“I’d say this, having the chance to wear the UofA uniform was an honor,” Frye said.

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