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LIVE FROM BOSTON: 'I didn't expect that'

Mar. 30—BOSTON — This Illinois men's basketball season will be remembered for its run to a Big Ten tournament title.

And run to the Elite Eight with NCAA tournament wins against Morehead State, Duquesene and Iowa State.

It will also be remembered for reigning national champion Connecticut running away from the Illini on Saturday night with a spot in the Final Four on the line.

UConn will return to the Final Four for the second straight season, using a dominating second-half performance to earn a 77-52 win in front of 19,181 fans at TD Garden.

"I didn't expect that," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "Today wasn't our day or what any of us expected. Tons of credit to UConn. We obviously came out in the second half and got blitzed."

The Illini (29-9) fell one win shy of reaching the program's first Final Four since 2005, while the Huskies (35-3) looked every bit like the overall No. 1 seed they are as they'll continue their quest to become the first back-to-back national champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007 next weekend at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

Donovan Clingan scored a point every minute he was in the game, with the 7-foot-2 UConn center and Most Outstanding Player of the East Region finishing with a game-high 22 points to go along with 10 rebounds, five blocked shots and three steals in only 22 minutes.

"He's good," Underwood said of Clingan. "He does a great job of protecting the rim.

He was one of five Huskies in double figures, with Hassan Diarra and Cam Spencer each scoring 11 points, while Alex Karaban and Samson Johnson each had 10 points.

"Donovan made good blocks, and they did what they do and got out in transition," Underwood said.

Marcus Domask scored a team-high 17 points for Illinois, with 15 of those in the first half. Domask's jumper in the lane tied the game at 23 with 1:49 left in the first half before UConn went on a dynamic 30-0 run that spanned the end of the first half and the first seven minutes of the second half.

"Just turned it up," UConn coach Dan Hurley said in a postgame TV interview with Andy Katz. "Credit Illinois. They're one of the hardest teams to play in the tournament. Systematically, we were able to break them down."

Illinois only finished shooting 25 percent from the field, going 17 of 67. The Illini were 6 of 23 from three-point range (26 percent).

"We were getting the same shots we always got," Underwood said. "We talked ad nauseum about spacing them. Give (Clingan) a lot of credit. They've got an elite guy back there."

Terrence Shannon Jr., who came into Saturday night averaging 28.3 points in the NCAA tournament, only had eight points on 2 of 12 shooting. It was the first time a team had held Shannon to single-digit scoring since he only had six points against Wisconsin on Jan. 28, 2023, a string of 41 straight games in double-figures scoring.

This Illinois team finished with the third-most wins in school history, only behind the 1988-89 Flyin' Illini that went 31-5 and the 2004-05 team that went 37-2.

"I stink at these end-of-the season deals," Underwood said. "What an incredible season. This is the funnest group of guys I've been around to coach. It's very hard to win 29 games in college basketball. This team did that playing the scheduled that we played. Great, great season. Tough ending."

***

The last year a team won by at least 30 points in an Elite Eight game? You have to go back to 1992 when Cincinnati defeated Memphis 88-57 in Kansas City, Mo.

Maybe Illinois avoids becoming the first team this century to avoid a similar fate, but the Illini's March run is going to come to an end Saturday night at TD Garden in Boston thanks to a dominating second half by UConn.

The Illini only trailed 28-23 at halftime before the Huskies, propelled by 7-foot-2 center Donovan Clingan, opened with a game-changing 25-0 run during the first seven minutes after halftime.

About the only bright spot for Illinois in the second half? Freshman forward Amani Hansberry. The Maryland native has eight points and has drained a pair of three-pointers off the bench.

***

"This is the most impressive performance we've seen by UConn yet," TBS analyst Stan Van Gundy said on the broadcast.

And that's saying something since top-seeded UConn beat 16th-seeded Stetson 91-52 in the first round, ninth-seeded Northwestern 75-58 in the second round and fifth-seeded San Diego State 82-52 in the Sweet 16.

Illinois kept it close with the reigning national champions in the first half. Even had the Huskies tied at 23 late in the first half following a jumper by Marcus Domask in the lane.

Since then, though, it's been all Huskies. All the time.

A 5-0 spurt by UConn at the end of the first half ballooned into an overwhelming 25-0 run in the first seven minutes of the second half.

Three Huskies are now in double figures, with Cam Spencer up to 11 points and 12 rebounds. Donovan Clingan has produced 20 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots in only 18 dominating minutes, with Alex Karaban adding 10 points.

***

UConn is running Illinois off the court at TD Garden.

A 25-0 run at the start of the second half (30-0 run if you combine the end of the first half and the start of the second half) has the top-seeded Huskies firmly in control against the Illini, who are having their worst offensive performance of the season at the most inopportune time.

A Justin Harmon layup with 12:41 left in the second half finally ended the second-half shutout for Illinois.

A close game in the first half has turned into anything but in the second half, with UConn asserting itself defensively at the rim and having its way around the rim on offense.

"This has been overwhelming," TBS analyst Stan Van Gundy said on the broadcast.

The Illini are shooting 21 percent from the field (11 of 53) and only 2 of 15 (25 percent) from three-point range. The fewest points Illinois has ever scored in an NCAA tournament game was 34 against Penn State in 1942, and the lowest field goal percentage the Illini have ever had was in that same game against the Nittany Lions 82 years ago when Illinois shot 12 of 53 from the field (22.6 percent).

Donovan Clingan has a game-high 18 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots in a dominating performance from the UConn big man. Alex Karaban has joined Clingan in double figures with 10 points, while Cam Spencer has six points and 11 rebounds.

Marcus Domask is still at 15 points for the Illini and has missed both of his shots so far in the second half. Terrence Shannon Jr., who had averaged 28.3 points in the NCAA tournament before Saturday, only has two points for Illinois and is 1 of 10 from field.

***

Illinois has called more timeouts in the second half (two) than made baskets (zero). The Illini have yet to score after halftime, and UConn has rattled off an 11-0 run since halftime ended (16-0 total spanning the end of first half and the beginning of the second half).

The Illini are shooting a woeful 23 percent from the field (10 of 43) from the field, including 2 of 11 from three-point range. Donovan Clingan has a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds to go along with four blocks, and the Huskies have made four of their last five shots.

***

This is the Donovan Clingan game. Not exactly what Illinois wanted to have happen.

The UConn center has increased the Huskies' lead to 12 points with his dominating play near the basket to start the second half and is up to 14 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots for the game.

Clingan started the second half like he did the first half. With an easy basket near the the rim to push UConn's lead to 30-23 and then added a free throw to go along with a two-handed dunk in traffic, prompting Illinois to call its first timeout of the second half in an effort to stem the 12-0 run the Huskies are currently on.

"This is a winnable game for Illinois, but they've got to change their approach," TBS analyst Stan Van Gundy said coming out of halftime. "Right now, they need to make better decisions."

Illinois did rally from double-digit deficits in the second half of all three of its Big Ten tournament games and will need to do so again against the Huskies if it wants to reach the Final Four. Otherwise, UConn will get a chance to defend its national title next weekend in Glendale, Ariz.

***

Illinois has never led, but hasn't let UConn run away with this Elite Eight game in which both offenses have decidedly not put forth their best performances so far.

Donovan Clingan has affected the game in a big way (not just because UConn's center is 7 feet, 2 inches and 280 pounds). He has nine points, six rebounds and two blocked shots, altering numerous other drives in the lane by Illinois, too, in his 12 minutes on the court.

"He passes up a wide-open three and drives right at Clingan," TBS analyst Dan Bonner said of a move by Quincy Guerrier in the final minute of the first half with Illinois trailing 28-23, with Guerrier's shot attempt in the lane missing high off the backboard and not hitting the rim.

Illinois is only shooting 29 percent from the field (10 of 35), including 2 of 7 (29 percent) from three-point range. UConn is 10 of 30 (33 percent) from the field and only 1 of 11 (9 percent) from three-point range.

Marcus Domask isn't shying away from UConn, though. And has nearly single-handedly kept the Illini close. Domask gave the game its first tie at 23 with 1:49 left in the first half on a 10-foot jumper in the middle of the lane, and has a game-high 15 points. He's done it by making 6 of 9 from the field and both of his three-point shots, with Illinois using him in isolation (aka booty ball) for multiple possessions.

Outside of Domask, the Illini starters are just 4 of 22 from the field. Outside of Clingan, who is 4 of 7 from the field, the Huskies' remaining starters are just 1 of 17 from the field. Sheesh. Terrence Shannon Jr. only has two points and is 1 of 7 from the field. Have to think those numbers will start to go up in the second half.

"They took on a barrage at the beginning of the game," former Villanova coach and analyst Jay Wright said at halftime of the Illini. "Marcus Domask was so tough inside and the answer in the first half offensively for Illinois."

But after Domask tied the game, UConn responded with its first three-pointer of the game by Hassan Diara to regain the lead at 26-23 with 1:22 left in the first half. Diara has given the Huskies a lift off the bench with seven points because outside of Clingan, the rest of UConn's starting five has struggled.

Something to monitor in the second half: Coleman Hawkins and Quincy Guerrier both have two fouls. We'll see how much UConn tries to get the ball to Clingan (who has one foul) in the second half and how much Dain Dainja might have to play if Hawkins and Guerrier can't stay out of foul trouble.

***

OK, maybe the whole concept of first team to 80 points winning the game won't happen. Maybe the first team to 50?

Either way, Illinois is hanging with UConn in an offensive struggle for both teams. Marcus Domask has kept Illinois close and is up to a game-high 13 points, making 5 of 8 from the field as the Illini are relying on booty ball and Domask's crafty footwork around the basket along with his accurate three-point shooting so far.

The scoring drought for Illinois ended with 6:18 left in the first half when Domask hit double digits at 11 points by making a layup for the Illini's first basket in more than five minutes. Quincy Guerrier then came through with a driving layup of his own with 5:24 left to cut the Illini's deficit to 19-17 with Donovan Clingan on the bench.

"Illinois has been having its way when he's out," TBS analyst Stan Van Gundy said on the broadcast. "When Clingan is out of the game, it's a whole different ballgame."

Two other items to keep note of: Terrence Shannon Jr. only has two points for the Illini (you have to think he's going to go on a scoring burst at some point), while UConn still hasn't made a three-pointer, attempting eight from beyond the arc and missing all of them so far.

***

The 7-foot-2, 280-pound Donovan Clingan is asserting his will on this game, a low-scoring game so far considering these are the top two offenses in the country.

"Shrink him by a foot," Brad Underwood said in jest to Andy Katz during an in-game TV interview. "We're going to keep going at it. If he blocks 100, he blocks 100. We're going to keep doing what we do."

The good news, Illini fans? Illinois is only down six. The bad news? They can't make a shot.

Illinois has missed its last 10 shots and is only shooting 23 percent from the field (5 of 22), with Ty Rodgers missing a point-blank reverse layup with no one around him evident of the shooting struggles by both teams. The last time Illinois scored was a Marcus Domask three-pointer with 11:27 left in the first half.

Clingan has nine points, three rebounds and two blocks for the Huskies, who have missed all seven of their three-pointers. UConn is only shooting 36 percent from the field (8 of 22).

***

Marcus Domask is keeping Illinois in the game.

The Illinois guard is up to nine points and has made his first two three-pointers, helping the Illini overcome a slow start and an early 9-0 deficit.

Illinois is shooting 42 percent from the field (5 of 12) and 2 of 4 from three-point range. UConn is shooting 40 percent from the field (6 of 15) and has missed all four of its three-point attempts.

UConn has led throughout, but the Illini aren't letting the Huskies run away with the game, like it looked they might. Domask hit the first three-pointer for Illinois off an assist from Luke Goode, and then Terrence Shannon Jr. responded with his first basket on a driving layup that trimmed UConn's lead to 13-10.

The first basket for Illinois came on a dunk by Quincy Guerrier with 15:17 left in the first half off a nice bounce pass from Domask that cut the Illini's deficit to 9-3.

Domask scored the first points of the night for Illinois, making the second of two free throws out of the first media timeout.

***

Outside of Zach Edey, Illinois hasn't played against a post player like Donovan Clingan this season. It's showing early, with the 7-foot-2, 280-pound center for UConn scoring the game's first seven points.

It's a main reason why the Illini are struggling through the first four minutes.

It hasn't helped Illinois, either, when it missed its first four shots from the field, looking tentative on offense for the first time in the NCAA tournament. The Illini also missed their first two free throws of the game, with Ty Rodgers missing both.

The first Illinois possession ended with a shot clock violation, and UConn scored first with Clingan jamming home a two-handed dunk.

***

Illinois will have to try and slow down arguably the best team it has played all season (apologies, Purdue).

All five UConn starters average double figures, led by guard Tristen Newton's 15.3 points. Newton also averages 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists. Other UConn starters are guard Stephon Castle (10.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists), guard Cam Spencer (former Rutgers guard averages 14.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists), forward Alex Karaban (13.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists) and center Donovan Clingan (12.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 2.4 blocks).

Illini fans turned out in droves ahead of Saturday's game against UConn — hoping for the best.

Illinois counters with its usual starting five of Terrence Shannon Jr. (23.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists), Ty Rodgers (6.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists), Marcus Domask (15.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists), Quincy Guerrier (9.6 points, 6.2 rebounds) and Coleman Hawkins (12.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists).

***

Some pregame reading from our staff in Boston and Champaign for you to consume:

***

Illinois-UConn is the first of four Elite Eight games in the next 24 hours. After the Illini (29-8) and Huskies (34-3) play in Boston, fourth-seeded Alabama (24-11) meets sixth-seeded Clemson (24-11) at 7:49 p.m. in Los Angeles. The two winners on Saturday night will meet in the Final Four next Saturday night at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

The other half of the bracket will play out Sunday. Top-seeded Purdue (32-4) plays second-seeded Tennessee (27-8) at 1:20 p.m. on Sunday at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit for the Midwest Region final. At 4:05 p.m. on Sunday, fourth-seeded Duke (27-8) plays 11th-seeded North Carolina State (25-14) in the South Region final at American Airlines Center in Dallas. One face to keep an eye on late Sunday afternoon on the North Carolina State bench is Kareem Richardson. The former Rantoul standout, who is still the school's all-time leading scorer even though he graduated in 1993, is in his second season as an assistant coach with the Wolfpack.

***

Some pregame numbers to digest. Illinois is averaging 84.2 points on the season, with Connecticut averaging 81.6 points. First team to 80 tonight wins? Maybe.

The Huskies are shooting 49.7 percent from the field for the season, with Illinois at 47.5 percent. UConn is slightly better from three-point range, making 36.2 percent and Illinois making 35.1 percent.

UConn is the slightly better free-throw shooting team, converting 74.2 percent of its foul shots. Illinois has made 73.6 percent of its free throws.

Illinois turns the ball over an average of 10.6 times, with UConn giving it away to other teams at an average of 9.8 per game. The Huskies also force an average of 6.3 steals and make 5.3 blocks per game. In those two categories, Illinois averages 4.4 steals and 3.8 blocks.

***

Connecticut ran away from San Diego State 82-52 on Thursday night at TD Garden in Boston. Illinois had to work a bit more to secure its 72-69 win against Iowa State hours after the reigning national champions proved once again why they received the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

What has caught the attention of the Huskies before they tangle with the Illini?

"Just how well they're playing," UConn coach Danny Hurley said in a pregame TV interview with Andy Katz. "I hope the difference for us can be our elite defense."

***

There have been a lot of firsts this postseason for Illinois.

First Sweet 16 appearance since 2005. First Elite Eight appearance since 2005.

Can the Illini make it first Final Four appearance since 2005, too?

All that stands in their way is Connecticut. The reigning national champions. A juggernaut of a team that's won 34 games this season by an average of just more than 20 points.

Nothing to it, right?

Illinois is certainly not feeling the pressure. At least not outwardly. The Illini are having the most fun of any team still alive in the NCAA tournament. The relaxed — but still focused — approach might be the right combination to secure a win against this UConn buzz saw and send Illinois to Phoenix.

Follow along all night to find out.