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Just Sayin’: Has it been 30 years already? The Flyin’ Illini recall one last ‘W’

Kenny Battle (left) and Nick Anderson celebrate with Illini coach Lou Henson after earning a spot in the 1989 Final Four. | AP

It happens to the best of us.

Getting old, that is.

“Oh, man, tell me about it,” Marcus Liberty said from his home in Sarasota, Fla. “I’m 50 years old — 50!”

What’re you gonna do?

Tuesday marked 30 years since Liberty and the rest of an unforgettable Illinois basketball team beat Syracuse 89-86 to advance to the Final Four. It was the last game the Flyin’ Illini — as great a college team as this state has seen — won together.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard it phrased that way — ‘the last game we won together.’ I like that,” said Stephen Bardo, also 50, the point guard on that team and now a college basketball analyst for Fox Sports and the Big Ten Network. “Usually, people just mention the game that came next [an 83-81 upset loss to Michigan]. But that Syracuse game was special. It was an example of how good our team really was, because that Syracuse team was loaded.”

NBA talent was everywhere on the floor that day at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. All five Illini starters — Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill, Bardo and Liberty — made it to the league. The star-studded Orange had Derrick Coleman, Sherman Douglas and Billy Owens, who between them would log 38 NBA seasons.

The whole thing was magnificent — on the court and in the stands, where fans of both teams wore the same color.

“The whole place was a sea of orange,” said Battle, 54, now of Plainfield. “You didn’t know who was cheering for you, and who was booing. And the teams were a perfect match — high-rated, high-flying, entertaining.”

Battle, at his most dazzling in that game, led all scorers with 28 points. Anderson poured in 24, and Gill 18. The Illini threw their exhausted bodies to the floor after the final horn and crawled to one another for hugs.

A week later — too soon, it seemed — it was over.

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“I had envisioned two more wins, the Final Four and the championship,” Battle said.

“We had so much talent, and we let the opportunity slip away,” Liberty said.

But they’ll always have that last victory together. The joy it brought is more enduring than the pain that followed one game later.

“I don’t think any of us understood then the impact we had on people,” Bardo said. “Every year removed from that season, I understand a little bit more.”

I’M JUST SAYIN’

DePaul also played in the NCAA Tournament in 1989. Led by the terrific Stanley Brundy and Terence Greene, the Blue Demons even won a game — their last tourney “W” until 15 years later. And since the one in 2004, well, you know how it is sometimes. We’re still waiting.

Which reminds me of Illinois’ current six-year NCAA drought, but I promised myself I wouldn’t bring that up.

• Speaking of DePaul, there are rumors swirling that the Blue Demons’ season isn’t over. Something about having beaten a team named Longwood to reach a “final four” of sorts, in which they’ll next face a team called Coastal Carolina. All this purportedly in a tournament referred to by those in the know as the CBI, which could stand for just about anything. College Basketball Irrelevance? Just a guess.

• Is it Sept. 5 yet?

Bears. Packers. Soldier Field. Giddyup.

Don’t worry, we’ll remind you as it gets closer so you don’t space out and miss it.

• You know what’s annoying? Pretty much everything about the Bears-Packers rivalry for the last 27 years.

True story: The Bears actually beat Brett Favre the first time they faced him, in 1992. You can look it up if you don’t believe me. Favre got his revenge in the second meeting of the season, though, and he must’ve liked the feeling because he pretty much never stopped slinging salt into the Bears’ wounds.

Head-to-head entering ’92: Bears led, 81-57-6. And now, thanks to tormentors Favre and Aaron Rodgers: Packers lead, 97-95-6. Any way you slice it, it adds up to a preposterous 40-14 stretch for the Bears’ mortal enemies.

Seems like maybe things are getting ready to swing the other way for a while, though, doesn’t it?

• A friendly reminder that Lauri Markkanen — or as Sun-Times Bulls beat writer Joe Cowley calls him, “the last man standing” — is 21 years old. It’s OK to be excited about that even though Markkanen’s teammates are collapsing all around him as a once-mighty franchise tells the second-year 7-footer, “Tanks for nothing.”

Markkanen is a beacon of hope, a reason to believe in the possibility — however remote — that the Bulls will be good again. Or at least not terrible again. Better than average again?

And, as we said, he’s only 21. That’s barely old enough to drown his sorrows in an ice-cold Sinebrychoff. You’re darn right I Googled “beers of Finland.”

• And then there are the Blackhawks, who woke up in Arizona Tuesday with, according to Hockey Reference, a 4.3 percent chance of making the playoffs. Who do they think they are, the White Sox?