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Notes: Illinois dictates pace to top Duquesne

Mar. 24—OMAHA, Neb. — The message coming from Duquesne before Saturday night's second-round NCAA tournament game against Illinois was straightforward.

Keep the game in the 60s and the 11th-seeded Dukes would have another shot at an upset after beating sixth-seeded BYU 71-67 on Thursday.

And Duquesne scored in the 60s. Just like it wanted to.

The only problem? Third-seeded Illinois didn't get the message. The Illini jumped all over the Dukes — putting up 50 points in the first half and turning Saturday night's game into a blowout.

"They bullied us," Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot said. "We got a little frazzled and unraveled, and we had trouble with their physicality and their quickness. I think if we played again, we would play better. I don't think we were quite ready for the quickness level and the strength."

Definitely not ready for Terrence Shannon Jr. combining both speed and strength into another breakout performance. The Illinois guard torched Duquesne in fast break opportunities, finishing with a game-high 30 points on 10 of 14 shooting. Shannon is now the third Illini to score at least 30 points in an NCAA tournament game, joining Frank Williams (30 points against Kansas in the Sweet 16 in 2001) and Deron Williams (31 points against Cincinnati in a second-round game in 2004).

"Shannon is one of the strongest guys in the country going to the basket," Dambrot said. "If you watch tape on him, he did the same thing in the Big Ten in the last five or six games. He was just putting his head down and getting there, and he's getting there quickly."

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Getting a lead and building on it against Duquesne was a point of emphasis for Illinois entering Saturday's game. Slow starts had been an issue most of this month. The Illini continued to win in spite of them, but they turned their focus to avoiding a repeat against the Dukes.

"They talked about they were going to slow us down and play in the 60s," Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins said. "That's pretty hard to do with us. I feel like when we get stops and defensive rebound and get out and run, we can score with ease and score with anybody. I think we have a whole other level we can tap into. It just goes to show people should fear us offensively. There's a lot of pieces you've got to scheme against and scout against."

Limiting Duquesne guards Dae Dae Grant and Jimmy Clark III was Illinois' primary defensive focus. The Dukes' leading scorers had just five points on a combined 1 of 10 in the first half, as their team fell behind 50-26 at the break.

"When we guard like that, that's what we can be," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "We did a lot of that early in the year defensively. I thought we smothered two really good guys. That gets us out and running. When you've got to take the ball out of the net, that takes something away from our game. I thought our defense was stellar. Other than a few offensive rebounds in the first half, I was really pleased."

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Shannon's 30 points against Duquesne gives him 158 in five postseason games this month between the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. That's an average of 31.6 points per game under the brighter lights of a bigger stage.

Underwood called Shannon's efforts the last two weeks "pretty special."

"And he's doing it guarding the other team's best player," the Illinois coach said. "Great players rise to occasions that are meaningful, and he is doing that. It's epic right now. I'm glad he's on my side and I'm not playing against him. He competes at a really high level — he's one of the most competitive people I've been around — and this all means something to him."

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Quincy Guerrier delivered a highlight-reel worthy play late in Saturday's blowout with an aggressive tip dunk. That the Illinois forward just happened to throw down right on teammate Marcus Domask's head.

Guerrier, who finished with 10 points and six rebounds on Saturday after not scoring in Thursday's win against Morehead State, said he didn't know he'd dunked on his own teammate until Domask said something afterward.

"I was just mad about the play before," Guerrier said after getting tangled up with Duquesne's Halil Barre. "I think it was just a dirty play from the other team. He tried to trip me or something. I just put all my range on the rim."

Without any regard for dunking on his teammate's head.

"I just jumped and didn't care about anything," Guerrier added with a smile.

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Dain Dainja finished his time in Omaha without missing a single shot. Saturday's follow-up of eight points on 4 of 4 shooting wasn't quite his 21 points on 9 of 9 shooting in the first round against Morehead State, but perfection is still perfection.

"It's just my confidence," Dainja said. "Every time I step on the court, I just want to come in and play with confidence however many minutes I get. It's about staying positive through whatever situation I'm going through. I feel like when I'm positive — cheering for other people, being the best teammate I can be — my situation will always work out."

Dainja is averaging 10.8 points in his last six games, which includes going scoreless in the Big Ten tournament semifinals against Nebraska. That's the only game in that stretch the 6-foot-9 forward hasn't played double-digit minutes.

"Get a coach that will throw him the ball more, huh?" Underwood said jokingly. "He's been so, so impactful. We're not here without him, and we're not going to win without him. We have to have him. We're not truly posting him. He's getting easy baskets — dump offs and rim runs. He's so big and strong and a powerful finisher that can use either hand. I hope he keeps adding to that."

Dainja said he started shifting his focus from scoring in post-ups to other avenues midway through the season based on how Illinois was running offense (mostly without him). He looked for different ways to be effective.

"Rim running is something I can perfect," Dainja said.

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Illinois was the higher seed in each of its games in Omaha, knocking off 14th-seeded Morehead State and 11th-seeded Duquesne. The Illini will be the lower seed in the Sweet 16 against second-seeded Iowa State. Not that they feel like that matters at this point of the postseason.

"I feel like the seeds don't matter as soon as the ball is tipped in that first round," Hawkins said. "I feel like that's evident every year. I feel like as soon as the ball is tipped, anybody could beat anybody. Whatever team plays the hardest.

"It's an imperfect game, and to try to base it off of seeds is kind of bizarre. There are so many great players that play in the tournament. So many great teams. All of them are chasing that one common goal. Everyone is going to compete extra hard. I feel like the seeding is out of the window in that first round really, and it's game on."

That's a sentiment Underwood shared. He's coached a No. 12 seed and a No. 14 seed at Stephen F. Austin that won first-round games. He also coached a No. 1 seed at Illinois that lost in the second round.

"It's about the matchup," Underwood said. "It's so many little factors that are involved. It's what makes this March Madness unique. We have now seen 16s beat 1s in this thing. Our task that we have in front of us is a team that was seeded higher than us.

"OK. We've played in the Big Ten. We've played some of the very best teams basketball has to offer. That's what you do all those things for is to prepare yourselves for these moments."

SCOTT RICHEY