If any team was destined to get help from above in the Louisville-Illinois game in the NCAA Tournament semifinals April 2, it should have been the Louisville Cardinals. After all, they were the team with a man of God (the Rev. Edward Bradley) on their bench.
Wherever Rick Pitino coaches, Father Bradley becomes the team chaplain. He was at Kentucky when Pitino was there and now he is with U of L's.
But the Illini had a man of God on the floor against U of L. Roger Powell Jr. was PLAYing and PRAYing.
"I really did pray at halftime," Powell said. "Seemed like it worked, I guess." Did it ever!
Powell, a licensed Pentecostal minister since last October, scored only two points in the first half, but erupted for 18 more in the second half. That led Illinois to a 72-57 victory.
U of L led for the last time when Powell hit a three-pointer with 17:53 left in the game.
Perhaps the play that broke the Cardinals' backs came when Powell followed his missed three-point shot by storming to the basket without being blocked out and dunking the ball. It was the most spectacular play of the game.
"I just knew that it was going to come off that way," he said. "I don't know why, but I knew it."
So what happened to Illinois in its 75-70 loss to North Carolina in the title game April 4? The Tar Heels had the best player, junior Sean May, who dominated the game with 26 points and 10 rebounds.
Nick Smith, Illinois' 7-foot reserve center, started life in Louisville. His father, Nick Sr., was program director for Jefferson County's cable system when Biggs Tabler was in charge. The big kid said that Powell's prayers can't hurt. "Somebody's been looking out for us the way we came back against Arizona.
"Everything Roger feels, as long as it's positive, we'll take it," said Smith.
When Smith was a senior in a Florida high school, his father called this writer for information about camps. I told him that just about every college had one.
"How big is he?" I asked.
"Seven feet," his dad answered.
I gulped. "Really?"
"I don't think he'll have any trouble getting accepted," I told his dad.
He wound up attending Tubby Smith's camp at Kentucky, but accepted an offer from Illinois. He played just six minutes against U of L, but scored two damaging baskets at crucial times. He was a defensive liability, however, and Ellis Myles drove around him for baskets a couple of times.
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