Illinois routs Morehead State, 85-69, in NCAA Tournament first round behind Dain Dainja’s monster second half

OMAHA, Neb. — Some Illinois players wore T-shirts touting the “Dainja Zone” on their trip to the NCAA Tournament, a nod to big man Dain Dainja.

It turned out to be prophetic for the No. 3 seed Illini, who turned to Dainja in the second half of a tight game and watched him go on a seek-and-destroy mission in an 85-69 rout of No. 14 Morehead State.

Terrence Shannon Jr. scored 26 points, including 19 in the first half, while Dainja added 21, of which 17 came in the second half as the Illini pulled away.

Dainja, who averaged only 5.8 points and 10 minutes coming into the tournament, hit all nine of his field-goal attempts, adding eight rebounds and two blocks in a near-perfect game.

The Illini trailed by two a little less than three minutes into the second half when Dainja took over, hitting six straight shots and scoring 14 of the Illini’s next 17 points to give them a commanding 59-48 lead. A signature dunk on a fast break with 12 minutes remaining rocked the house at CHI Health Center and let angst-ridden Illini fans relax, at least until Saturday.

The Illini take on No. 11 seed Duquesne in their second-round game. The Dukes earlier pulled off a 71-67 upset of sixth-seeded BYU. Duquesne, the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament champion, started 9-8 but since have won 16 of 19 and nine straight for retiring coach Keith Dambrot.

“They just won’t let me retire, man,” Dambrot said after the win. “I’m trying to retire. We keep winning games. They’ll make me an old man.”

The Illini found themselves trailing Morehead State 9-0 in the blink of an eye when the Eagles hit their first three 3-pointers. But Shannon was unstoppable in the first half, pouring in 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting to make up for the slow start by Marcus Domask, who went 1 for 5 from the field and added only two points before the intermission.

Still, the Illini went into the half leading 39-38, shooting 48.4% overall and 6 for 15 (40%) on 3-pointers. Freshman Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn came off the bench to hit two big 3s in the half.

A one-point halftime lead was still too close for comfort for Illini Nation, which has been wounded by so many tournament disappointments. But coach Brad Underwood took advantage of Dainja’s size and energy, and the Illini went on cruise control the final minutes.

Domask posted the 10th triple-double in NCAA Tournament history, finishing with 12 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Ja Morant had the last one in the 2019 tournament, and the list also includes Draymond Green (twice), Dwyane Wade, Andre Miller and Shaquille O’Neal.

The Illini wound up shooting 54.2% on the afternoon and 46.2% from 3-point range. Underwood pulled his starters, and Dainja, with three minutes left and a 24-point lead.

The Dainja Zone was closed for the day, and it was on to Round 2.