Champaign, IL (U-WIRE) -- The clouds rolled in, but the orange carpet still rolled out to welcome the Illini basketball team home from its run for the National Championship Tuesday evening at Memorial Stadium.
More than 20,000 fans filled the west stands of the stadium for the Illinois Basketball Celebration, welcoming the team back from St. Louis.
Waving homemade posters and flashing cameras, the fans hailed their Illini. Nobody got a standing ovation, as the crowd never left its feet.
"You've loved our team, you've cheered for them, you've been with them every moment of the day," Head coach Bruce Weber told the fans, thanking them for their support.
Weber referred to Illinois' season as a "fairy-tale," even if the ending was not what the team and the Illini Nation had hoped for. He also alluded to the fact that former Illinois coach Bill Self left the University seeking a better chance at a national title, but was eliminated in the opening round of this year's tournament. The reference drew huge cheers from the fans.
"What a ride, what a joy, what a privilege, what a blessing it has been for me to be a fan of this coach, these players, this team," Interim Chancellor Richard Herman said as he addressed the crowd. "Last night I cried, not sad that we had come up a few points shy of our ultimate ambition, but sad that this coach, these young men, this team might think we were disappointed in them."
Gov. Rod Blagojevich applauded the example the team set for fans and fellow players and declared the day "Fighting Illini Day."
"It's a metaphor for life," Blagojevich said. "If you think about the way this team plays basketball, they give it their all for 40 minutes, they never stop scratching and clawing and hustling, crashing the boards, shooting 3- pointers, never quitting, playing like a team, being close, being selfless.
"They're a reflection of coach Weber and I think the kids who go to school here are going to learn a lot about engineering, are going to learn a lot about philosophy, history and English literature, all the things you learn in college, but they can learn a lot of lessons from the way this basketball team played and the way they never quit. The way they always work and hustle, and the way they work as a team."
Several Illinois players spoke as well, many stepping behind the podium only after being prompted by fans. Senior forward Jack Ingram prompted an I-L-L, I-N-I cheer, and Brian Randle led the fans in the overhead clap that visitors to Assembly Hall do before tip-off at each game.
Other highlights included performances by the Basketball Band, cheerleaders and Illinettes, a post-season highlight reel played on the Memorial Stadium Jumbotron and a performance by Chief Illiniwek.
But the main focus was on the players and the historic basketball season.
"I may be gone next year, but I will still pray for the Illini," said senior forward Roger Powell Jr. "My spirit will be with the Illini."
(C) 2004 Daily Illini via U-WIRE