The Flyin' Illini

Feb 22, 2019

The 30-year reunion for the Flyin' Illini is tomorrow. And I have about 45 minutes here before an appointment. So why not fill those 45 minutes with a rambling post listing all the things I remember from the spring of 1989?

I was a sophomore in high school, I was already Illini-crazy (I cried when we lost to Kentucky in the 1984 Elite Eight, I started at the ceiling of my bedroom for hours when we lost to Austin Peay in 1987), so I was so ready for a Final Four run. That's the number one thing I remember about that spring (and the thing that really isn't talked about very much anymore). That team HAD to get to the Final Four. It was Seattle or bust.

Here's why: Lou Henson had built the program during that decade, but the one thing missing was a Final Four. Each year the pressure built - when will this team finally break through and get to the Final Four? So many almosts, year after year.

Here were the almosts as I remember them:

  • 1984, we get to the Elite Eight but had to play Kentucky AT KENTUCKY. This was the game that changed the rule so that teams could no longer play at home in the regional finals. We lost, and we lost because the refs didn't call a travel on Dickie Beal, and you'll never not convince me that the refs didn't call a travel on Dickie Beal because the game was being played on Kentucky's home court.
  • In 1985 we got a three seed and got to the Sweet 16. That led to a S16 matchup with Georgia Tech, which we lost. #1 Georgetown loomed in the Elite Eight, and in my youthful ignorance, I didn't even consider losing to Georgia Tech. We were going to win and then we were going to knock off Patrick Ewing and Georgetown.
  • 1986 was a really weird year. I think we were #6 preseason but nothing really clicked. It was my first experience with a team not meeting expectations. Nobody had any answers (not even my dad, who had all the answers) - we just kept losing games we shouldn't lose. Including the 4/5 game against Alabama in the Round of 32 (with Kentucky looming in the Sweet 16).
  • 1987 I was convinced we were going to the Final Four. The incredible recruiting class was signed, we had shaken off the weirdness of 1986, we had a genuine star in Ken Norman. That's the first year I did my yearly NCAA Tournament pool (I was in junior high, and hand-wrote a bunch of brackets and then made copies at my dad's office to pass out at lunch on Monday), and many of those brackets had Illinois in the Final Four. But it didn't happen. We got a three-seed opposite a very beatable 2-seed Alabama and a not-great-anymore 1-seed Georgetown, so I was convinced that this was the Final Four year. Except we lost to 14-seed Austin Peay in the first round (and to make matters worse, 6-seed Providence beat Austin Peay two days later and then rolled over Bama and Georgetown to get to the Final Four).
  • 1988 was another "Elite Eight is a lock" year (in my mind and, I think, in the minds of a lot of the fanbase). Another three-seed, and after getting past Villanova in the second round, it was going to be time for revenge on Kentucky. Except it was Villanova that got revenge on Kentucky because Villanova beat us in the Round of 32. That one stung almost as much as the Austin Peay loss. I already had my eyes on Oklahoma in the Elite Eight.

So going into 1989, there was a lot of pressure. You could easily categorize every NCAA Tournament from 1985 through 1988 as a disappointment. So many missed chances. We kept getting 3-seeds and we kept losing early.

Preseason 1989 we were in the top ten again, and we were hopeful, but we didn't really know what we had until the Braggin' Rights game (I don't think we played any ranked teams before that, and I don't think we played any games away from home). The Braggin' Rights game was huge that year, with both teams ranked in the top-10. I want to say we trailed for much of the game before a big comeback led to a three-point victory. We then went to Hawaii for the Rainbow Classic, won that, and returned to find ourselves undefeated and #3 in the country.

About that time, I remember my high school starting to go crazy for this team. The "this is the year" had begun. Illini sweatshirts all around school. Talk of a Final Four and maybe even a national championship. When we beat Georgia Tech in double overtime and moved to #1 in the country, the entire state was all-in.

Then, adversity. Kendall Gill had broken his... wrist? Why can't I remember Kendall Gill's injury right now? I think it was his wrist but I don't have time to look it up right now.

With Gill out, we go up to Minnesota and, in our first game as the #1 team, we lose. Man, I remember being so upset after that game. I can picture where I was pacing in the basement of our old house. We lost three of four after Gill's injury, and I was inconsolable. This was finally the year, and it was ruined. Yes, "ruined" by falling all the way to #10 in the polls. NUMBER TEN!

We rebounded, of course, with the big moment being Nick Anderson's shot to beat Indiana. People might forget that we were #8 and Indiana #3 at the time, so that was a massive game with a national audience. Could you imagine something like that today? Say this game at Purdue next week was #8 Illinois vs. #3 Purdue. Would you even sleep between now and then?

That's how it was for me. I had my driver's license by then but was on a "you can only drive in town" restriction. I begged and begged my parents to let me drive to the mall 25 minutes away so I could buy this shirt I had seen that said "Awesome - Illinois Basketball". (Yes, that was the whole shirt - "Awesome - Illinois Basketball".) They finally let me go and I think I wore it every other day.

And there were other shirts at the time. The famous "(Kenny) Battle For Seattle" shirt for one. Think there was some pressure to make the Final Four that year? People were wearing shirts that predicted Battle would make it to Seattle. There was one goal - no more failures in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8. It was time for a Final Four.

And we got there, although it wasn't comfortable. Number three on my "people forget that" list - we came fairly close to losing to McNeese State in the 1/16 matchup. Virginia's loss last year wouldn't have meant much if the first 16 over a 1 happened to the Flyin' Illini. We only led by 5 at halftime and only won 77-71.

In the next game, it was Rick Majerus and Ball State, a surprisingly plucky nine-seed and a surprisingly uncomfortable game (we ended up winning by 12). And then off to Minneapolis and the Sweet 16. My massive fear that week (and I mean MASSIVE fear)? That we'd have to play Missouri for a chance at the Final Four. Ugh, I can remember the dread even now.

Thankfully, we didn't have to. We knocked off Louisville (fairly handily - it was much smoother than McNeese State or Ball State), and Syracuse knocked off Missouri (by three) leading to one big game: Illinois vs. Syracuse for the Final Four. I can remember where I watched the game and I can remember my path outdoors to celebrate when we clinched the Final Four.

Again, I cannot emphasize how big that was. A decade of almosts in the Tournament. Three recent bad tourney losses hanging over our heads. "Battle to Seattle". And we pulled it off.

After that, I'm not sure. I don't think they even played the Final Four that year? Can't remember. Nothing comes up when I try to recall what happened. All I can remember is the "positionless clones" fighting past Syracuse on their way to the Final Four.

And my purchase of about 11 Illini Final Four shirts.


larue on February 22 @ 08:12 PM CST

Gill broke a bone in his foot.

I believe Louisville set a tournament record for blocked shots in the game against us, but we just kept attacking the rim anyway, especially Anderson. Those two regional games were high level basketball.

track on February 23 @ 09:34 AM CST

We left the regionals with Battle and Hamilton injured. They were not 100% against UM.

Illinimac68 on February 24 @ 12:38 PM CST

The damn Hubert H Humphrey Dome with its Hefty Bag roof that leaked on the court when our guys went out for practice. Ervin Small, bless him, got a lot of Hamilton's minutes against Michigan and was game but just wasn't able to hold down Michigan's bigs.

ATOillini on February 23 @ 10:26 AM CST

Great article.......No question this was the best team in the country. So many great memories from that year that it's hard to even start. 127 points vs. LSU? The shot. Known for scoring, yet could suffocate teams defensively. I could go on and on. The beauty of the NCAA tourney can also be its curse. No best of 7 series to overcome an upset. I was disconsolate after that loss to MI. We would have destroyed Seton Hall.

BenE74 on February 23 @ 05:49 PM CST

That picture blows my mind everytime I see it. Look at it. Almost no variation in height across the board. They truly were positionless and it was a joy to watch!

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