25th Anniversary of the Flyin' Illini
Jan. 2, 2014
Coaches, left to right: Graduate Assistant Scott Nagy, Assistant Coach Jimmy Collins, Head Coach Lou Henson, Assistant Coach Dick Nagy and Assistant Coach Mark Coomes.
By Derrick Burson, Assistant Athletic Director for Communications
The 1988-89 Flyin' Illini captivated the hearts of Illinois fans during their magical run to the Final Four. This season marks the 25th anniversary of Lou Henson's beloved club that set a then-school record with 31 victories. Here is a look back at the achievements and some memorable games and moments from the 1988-89 Illinois basketball season:
Nick Anderson flies to the basket for a dunk against Purdue. Illinois' up-tempo and athletic style earned the team the nickname the "Flyin' Illini."
The Flyin' Illini were known for their up-tempo style and offensive production. Illinois set a single-season school record by scoring 3,110 points, a mark that still stands as the UI record today.
The Illini topped the 100-point mark eight times, led by a ridiculous 127-point outing in a victory over LSU in Baton Rouge on Dec. 22. Illinois shot 68 percent for the game en route to its single-game record point total (another record that still remains). The UI offense was so dominant that the starters sat for the much of the second half, with no one on the roster logging more than 25 minutes. In addition to a UI school record, the 127 points also marked the most scored by an opponent in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. After the game, LSU coach Dale Brown called the Illini "the finest group of athletes I've ever seen in this gym."
WATCH: The Flyin' Illini Dunks
As effective as Illinois was offensively, a trademark of Lou Henson's teams was always suffocating defense. The Flyin' Illini continued that defensive tradition, but did so with an aggressive fullcourt defense that featured pressing and trapping instead of Henson's patented halfcourt man-to-man defense. With so many athletic players at nearly the same height and able to interchange positions, the Illini pushed opponents out of their comfort zone, forcing turnovers and grabbing 341 steals, a single-season school record that remains today. Kenny Battle led the way for the Illini with 89 steals, setting the UI season mark that also still stands.
Awards & Accolades
Nick Anderson - First-Team All-Big Ten ... Honorable Mention All-American ... NCAA Midwest Region Most Outstanding Player ... Team MVP.
Kenny Battle - Second-Team All-Big Ten ... Honorable Mention All-American ... NCAAA Midwest Region All-Tournament Team ... Team Co-Captain.
Kendall Gill - Honorable Mention All-American ... NCAAA Midwest Region All-Tournament Team.
Stephen Bardo - Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Lowell Hamilton - Team Co-Captain.
Win 'em All at The Hall
That's exactly what the Flyin' Illini did, registering a 17-0 record at the Assembly Hall. Only two of those 17 games were decided by single digits as the Illini owned an impressive victory margin of 19.1 points at home during the season, a 23.5-point advantage during the non-conference and a 15.2-point advantage in Big Ten play.
The Flyin' Illini started the season with 17 straight wins, setting a school record that would stand for 16 years (broken by the UI's 29-game winning streak in 2004-05).
Illinois defeated 12 ranked opponents during the season and set a school single-season record with five wins over Top-10 teams.
Braggin' Rights Comeback
Illinois' sixth consecutive win over Missouri in the annual Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis was no easy task. The Tigers were a Top-10 team with Final Four aspirations just like the Illini. Mizzou jumped all over the Orange and Blue, opening up an 18-point first-half lead.
But the Illini would not go away, chipping away at the deficit until a Marcus Liberty 3-pointer put the Illini up 54-52 with 11:16 left. The final 11 minutes featured five ties with the momentum swinging back and forth. Missouri then went ahead 84-83 on a Doug Smith dunk with 1:03 remaining, but Kenny Battle hit a pair of clutch free throws with 26 seconds left to put the Illini back up by one. The Illini then forced a Mizzou turnover, and Larry Smith's layup before the buzzer sealed the victory. Battle led the Illini with 29 points.
Becoming Number 1
Kenny Battle dunks in the Illini's win against Georgia Tech.
When No. 1 Duke, the nation's only other undefeated team, lost to North Carolina, Illini faithful knew the opportunity to grab the top spot was there for the taking on Jan. 22 at the Assembly Hall.
The task wouldn't come easy, as the Illini would have to knock off a talented Georgia Tech team for the second time of the season. Finding themselves down 14 at the half, Illinois slowly climbed back, then finally took the lead with four minutes left to play. The Yellow Jackets responded to send the game into overtime.
Momentum turned after guard Kendall Gill left the game with an injury. The Illini stayed in the game and forced a second overtime where the Flyin' Illini, in signature fashion, ran by an exhausted Georgia Tech squad. With a 10-point lead late, the Orange and Blue put the icing on the cake when Kenny Battle received a bounce pass on the baseline and soared for a dunk over a defender.
Minutes later the crowd erupted as the buzzer sounded and the Illini became No. 1, earning the top ranking for the second time in school history and first since 1952.
In the Nick of Time
Nick Anderson is mobbed by teammates after hitting a 35-footer at the buzzer to beat No. 3 Indiana in Bloomington, 70-67.
It remains one of the most thrilling moments in Illinois Basketball history.
Illinois traveled to the other Assembly Hall to take on the third-ranked Indiana Hoosiers in a nationally televised game on March 5. The entire first half was played within a four-point margin. But the Hoosiers took control after intermission, building a 13-point lead with 11 minutes left. Once again, the Illini mounted a comeback, pulling to single digits by the 8-minute mark and to within one point on four separate occasions in the final four minutes.
Illinois finally took the lead - its first of the second half - on a 3-pointer by Stephen Bardo with 1:38 remaining. The Hoosiers at first glance seemed to force overtime when Jay Edwards nailed a baseline jumper to tie the game at 67 followed by the buzzer. But after the referees consulted, two seconds were put back on the clock, setting the stage for Anderson's heroics.
Following a Henson timeout, Bardo threw a 60-foot inbounds pass to Anderson, who caught it in front of the Illini bench, turned, and launched a 35-foot jump shot that swished through the net. A stunned Indiana crowd watched in silence as the Illini mobbed Anderson on the court and celebrated.
Battle to Seattle
Kenny Battle dunks in the Illini's Elite Eight victory against Syracuse to advance to the Final Four.
The Flyin' Illini reached their season-long goal of reaching the 1989 Final Four at the Kingdome in Seattle. It marked Illinois' fourth all-time Final Four appearance, and first in 37 years.
The path to the Final Four was set in Big Ten country, as the Illini earned the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region. The Illini played in the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis during the first weekend, defeating McNeese State and Ball State. The UI then moved on to the Metrodome in Minneapolis for Regional action. After defeating Louisville in the Sweet 16 behind Anderson's 24 points, an Elite Eight showdown with Syracuse was all that remained.
By this point in the season the Illini were accustomed to staging comebacks, and it would take another such effort to topple the Orangemen. Illinois fell behind by as many as 13 points in the first half and trailed for much of the game.
Stephen Bardo cuts down the net after the win.WATCH: Flyin' Illini Beat Syracuse to Advance to Final Four
But the Illini would not go away, scoring seemingly at will during a second-half comeback before finally taking a 70-68 lead on a Battle layup with 7:21 remaining. The Illini later scored five unanswered on another layup by Battle, a put back dunk by Gill, and a free throw by Anderson to make it 84-78 with less than two minutes remaining.
Down three on its final possession, Syracuse's Stevie Johnson missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer. Anderson tipped the rebound out to Gill, who recovered and raced up the court with the ball as time expired and the Final Four celebration began in Minneapolis, Champaign, and throughout the state of Illinois.