Illini turn ramped-up defense into Sweet 16 win

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BOSTON — Three down. Three to go.

That was the message Luke Goode shared as Illinois made its way back to its locker room at TD Garden following its post-midnight Sweet 16 win against Iowa State. Fending off the Cyclones for a 72-69 victory was a big deal — worth celebrating — but it still only got the Illini halfway to their ultimate goal.

"We've got three games under our belt, so we've got three more to go," Goode said. "We're in the Elite Eight now. We're not going to take it for granted — it's a blessing to be there — but we don't have the mindset of just having the Elite Eight on the banner. We want it all."

Illinois (29-8) took another step toward having it all by flipping the script on Iowa State. The Cyclones (29-8) entered Thursday's game boasting the No. 1 defense in the country. Then the Illini and their No. 1 offense in that much hyped matchup wound up being the more physical, assertive team.

"We've all got confidence in what we do," Illinois guard Marcus Domask said. "It's really easy to look at all the analytics, but once you're out there playing the game that goes out the window. It's us versus them. We felt like we could guard them, and we did."

Illinois bottled up Iowa State. Limited threes. Forced tough twos. The Cyclones shot 29 percent in the first half, and the Illini led by double digits at the break.

"It all started with the starting five," Illinois guard Justin Harmon said. "They started the game off real strong, so we knew coming off the bench we had to mach their intensity. We just guarded our butt off, and we came out with the win."

Consider it a page lifted directly from the Iowa State playbook. Being more physical, more assertive is how the Cyclones emerged as the No. 1 defense in the country.

"Seemed like we came out a little tight for whatever reason," Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger said. "We're at our best when we're dictating and pressuring the basketball and when we're chasing down rebounds and we're attacking off turnovers. We weren't able to do those things to the level that — or the standard — that we try to uphold.

"They did a good job of being the aggressor, I felt like, defensively. They did a great job kind of pushing us out where we were running our offense. That physicality also on the glass played an impact on both sides."

Even after holding a third straight NCAA Tournament opponent to fewer than 70 points, the defensive metrics don't favor Illinois. The Illini are inside the top 100 in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency, but not by much.

But they've got grit, toughness and tenacity — Underwood's words — that they can shine in big defensive moments.

"I think we really made a statement on that end," Illinois guard Ty Rodgers said. "Guys always talk about our offense, but you don't win these games like this with just offense. We just know that's what we've got to do to win game — especially at this time. Earlier in the season we were kind of depending on our offense too much. We took a step back on the defensive end. Now, we're doing our job."

That was the point Quincy Guerrier wanted to get across following the win. Illinois is known for its defense. Or at least was.

"Our defense kind of slipped up during the season, but we're a really good defense," the Illinois forward said. Iowa State did shoot 46 percent from three-point range, but attempts were limited, and the Cyclones just shy of 40 percent for the game.

"We take pride in it, and that's why we got the win," Guerrier continued. "Just focus and mentality. We've just got to be aggressive. ... We know that when we play defense the offense is going to be good. We just need to rebound the ball, get stops. That's going to get our energy up."

The defensive effort against Iowa State moved Illinois into 84th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. Since the NCAA tournament started, the Illini rank 47th in adjusted defensive efficiency in Bart Torvik's calculations.


"Everyone wants to talk about how our defensive efficiency isn't great, but when we need to lock in and get a stop we're going to do that," Goode said.

Harmon called a locked in Illinois team defensively "pretty scary."

"We want to keep playing," he continued. "We want to keep this thing going until we can't. We're the toughest team in the country, and we're the most connected team. If we guard and cut the turnovers down, we're the best team in the country. Easy."