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I paid only passing attention to college basketball growing up, at least in comparison to baseball and football. It was boring seeing UCLA, with Lew Alcindor and then Bill Walton, win the title every year.

That all changed on the night of Jan. 11, 1979, when Magic Johnson brought his No. 1 ranked Michigan State Spartans to Assembly Hall to play our unbeaten No. 2 ranked Fighting Illini.

It was the most anticipated sports event of my young lifetime, and we won 57-55 on a 20-foot shot from the corner by star forward Eddie Johnson with just two seconds left. The No. 1 ranking would be ours when the next polls came out.

The celebration was cut short when we lost 40 hours later in overtime to Ohio State. The cover of Sports Illustrated for that week was changed at the last moment from Eddie making his game-winner to the headline "Ohio State upsets Illinois."

The Illini would go on to lose 10 of their next 14 and finish a dismal seventh in the Big 10, while Magic and the Spartans would defeat "the Hick from French Lick" (Larry Bird) and the 33-0 Indiana State Sycamores in that year's final.

The Illini collapse aside, that year was the beginning of a tradition for many of us. We would ritualistically convene at the T-Bird bar on the Urbana side of the University of Illinois campus on the first day of the tournament to watch all the games, skipping classes if need be, because some things mattered more and because the T-Bird was the only place in town that had one of those projector big-screen TVs.

And cheap pitchers of beer and mostly edible pub food.

March Madness as we now know it began with Magic versus Bird, but was propelled just about every year thereafter by dramatic storylines and stunning upsets.

Who can forget a freshman guard from North Carolina by the name of Michael Jordan hitting the game-winning shot in 1982 against Georgetown, after which Fred Brown inexplicably tossed the ball to the Tar Heels' James Worthy? Or the way Hoyas coach John Thompson then gave us an enduring lesson in class and compassion by hugging the disconsolate Brown on the sidelines?

Or that weird dunk at the buzzer by North Carolina State's Lorenzo Charles the next year that upset Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and "Phi Slamma Jamma?" With Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano then bouncing about the court in a futile attempt to find someone to hug, with a stunned look on his face as if even he couldn't believe what had just happened?

The memories are still there--lowly eighth seed Villanova milking the clock and missing just one shot (!!) from the field in the entire second half to upset Patrick Ewing's 35-2 Hoyas in the 1985 final; the remarkable run of Michigan's "Fab Five" freshmen in 1991; and Christian Laettner's catch-dribble-and-fire buzzer-beater for Duke to close out what many consider the greatest game ever against Kentucky in 1992.

My Illini even made an occasional contribution to the drama over the years, although often in the wrong way, as in 1987 when their highly seeded squad was upset by dinky Austin Peay (who could always claim the best chant, "Let's go Peay"), forcing Dick Vitale to honor his pledge to stand on his head if the 14th seed Governors somehow managed to win.

Or the following year when they blew a big lead against Villanova in the most excruciating way possible--by missing 10 out of 13 free throws in the final two minutes, including the front end of three straight one-and-ones.

Many of the players who missed those free throws redeemed themselves the next year, when the "flying Illini" (they seemed to dunk on about every other score) made it to the Final Four, only to lose on a last shot to Michigan, a team they had beaten twice by double-digits during the regular season.

The Illini had, on the whole, a good run over several decades, culminating in the special 2005 team, which won its first 29 games and earned the top seed in the tournament.

Although they had the misfortune of having to face a Tar Heels squad in the final that would have four players drafted in the first 14 picks of that year's NBA draft, they fought back from a big deficit and had the ball with the game tied with a minute to play before tired legs missed their last couple jumpers.

The coach of that 2005 team was Bruce Weber, a good man and coach who was run out of town a few years later for not being able to maintain that high level of success.

Even though he had averaged over 23 wins per year at Illinois, I wanted him fired too. Because only the Final Four every year would do.

Weber's Kansas State team made it to the Elite Eight last year and earned a No. 4 seed in the tournament this year.

The Illini haven't got a tournament bid for seven years now, and just set a program record for losses in a season.

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 04/08/2019

Print Headline: March Madness memories

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