Crushed at the buzzer, Illinois's hoop hopes still live on

The University of Illinois basketball team finally met its match on Sunday - but faithful fans take the long view.

Almost perfect.

That's how this year's Fighting Illini season will be remembered, after Illinois's crushing one-point loss to Ohio State Sunday.

Orange-clad fans watched in disbelief as their team hit the end of its Cinderella run, and the regular season ended on a loss.

But that loss has hardly dampened fans' enthusiasm. Most are quick to declare it a small bump on the road to what they really care about: success in the NCAA Tournament. A few even have theories as to why the loss is a positive, a necessity best gotten out of the way now before the elimination of tournament play begins.

By any measure, this has been a storybook year for a team that's rarely in the national spotlight. The Illini have grabbed the attention of the country, the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the hearts of almost everyone here in their hometown.

"It's still a great season, and one loss doesn't make it any less great," says Andrew Bunton, a University of Illinois sophomore who attended every home game and watched the final minutes of Sunday's game on the TV screens at Gameday Sports, the store where he works, selling Fighting Illini apparel. "If nothing else, this takes the pressure off our shoulders."

That pressure near the end of an undefeated season can indeed be overwhelming, as last year's teams from St. Joseph's and Stanford can attest. Both saw perfect records get blown at season's end. St. Joseph's was spoiled in the Atlantic-10 tournament by the same coach who dashed Illinois's hopes on Sunday, back when he was coaching Xavier.

Since 1939, only 12 Division I teams in the NCAA have ever had perfect seasons, the last in 1976.

Illinois's hopes were dashed when Ohio State reserve Matt Sylvester sank a three-pointer with 5.1 seconds on the clock - sealing a defeat that also ended the Illini's 25-game conference winning streak and a 14-game string of wins on the road.

But the season isn't over, as fans here are quick to point out. Illinois has already clinched its second straight Big Ten championship, it's enjoyed a No. 1 national ranking for an unprecedented 13 weeks, and is all but assured of a top seed in the NCAA tournament. The last time it made the Final Four was with 1989's "Flyin' Illini," and it's never won a national championship.

"I'll still pick them to go all the way," says Nathan Howard, a senior who's watched every game for four years, wears the same Illinois shirt every home game as a good-luck charm, and says his support isn't about to wane now. "This just puts more emphasis on the Big Ten tournament."

Older fans brought a sense of perspective to the heartbreak.

"I graduated from here 23 years ago, and there have been good years, and lots of bad years," says Bill Lawser, a consultant who lives in town. No matter the final outcome, "this has been an amazing ride."

Mr. Lawser, like others, finds lots to praise in the team's quickness, energy, and - a word that inevitably arises in every discussion of this team - unselfishness. There's no expected top draft pick among the players, who are known instead for their frequent passing and rotating roster of game-day heroes. Dee Brown may be the biggest star, but Deron Williams, Luther Head, James Augustine, and Roger Powell shine almost as frequently.

Down in Central Illinois, none of them can do wrong. Fans calling themselves the "Orange Krush" pack Assembly Hall on game days and many follow the team on the road. A few were quick to remind each other Sunday of some pundits' claims that a loss would be good for the team - a non-tournament way to take the pressure off and remind the players they're vulnerable.

"At first my heart sank, but then I thought, 'This just means they'll go that much further in the tournament,'" says Janet Piccioli, a Champaign resident since 1970 whose husband does statistics for the football games. She's in the Illini Shop in a local mall, buying a big orange flag to wave outside her house. "I thought I'd boost my husband's morale," she says.

Despite the optimism and philosophical acceptance, however, the defeat was a blow for the town and cast a pall over the campus all day, despite spring-like temperatures and a cloudless sky.

In Kam's, a sports bar where players congregate after home games, a few loyal fans, all wearing orange T-shirts, had gathered to watch the Sunday-morning game.

Jordan Benson, a junior sitting at the counter, said he'd been following the team since he was six. But this year's success "is something I've never seen before.... This could be that breakthrough season."

Then, as Illinois's lead shrank at the end, first to four, then to two, the bar grew silent. "This is too close. I'm not really liking this," Mr. Benson moaned, holding his head.

When the buzzer finally sounded, he choked back tears.

Finally, one young woman spoke up. "At least they lost before March Madness starts," she said, with a hint of hope.

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