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Physicality, intensity at tipoff key for Illini

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OMAHA, Neb. — Brad Underwood joked after Thursday's win against Morehead State that he was going to figure out a different pregame speech than the one he's been using.

A slow start and early deficit ultimately didn't hurt Illinois in its first-round NCAA tournament win against the Eagles. Just like the Illini were able to manage the same happening multiple times in Minneapolis at the Big Ten tournament.

Illinois' ability to rip off a monster run in strong second halves has been the difference. Morehead State got the full brunt of a Dain Dainja-inspired one Thursday afternoon at CHI Health Center in downtown Omaha.

But how sustainable is that approach as opponents continue to get tougher and games inevitably get tighter in the NCAA tournament? Will it work Saturday night against Duquesne?

"I'm not going to complain after wins," Illinois guard Luke Goode said. "We've won those games we've been down, so it necessarily hasn't been an issue. But having those runs is nice to have in our back pocket if we need it."

Illinois didn't need one of those monster second-half rallies in its final game of the regular season. The Illini jumped all over Iowa — at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, no less — for a 22-4 advantage eight minutes into the game that turned into a wire-to-wire victory.

That's the template. That's the kind of early-game effort that's been mostly missing since.

There was focus. Intensity. Attention to detail.

"The Iowa game — at their place — we have to have that same mentality and the same physicality every game from now on," Illinois forward Quincy Guerrier said. "We've been playing a little too much — especially the way we've been starting. We have to make sure we're not doing it again. ... We'll be ready (Saturday). We'll have to."

That Illinois entered that March 10 game in Iowa City, Iowa, fresh off a disappointing home loss to Purdue can't be ignored. The Illini had lost their shot at at least sharing the Big Ten regular-season title by losing at home to the Boilermakers.

"We kind of had that edge to ourselves where we weren't going to lose two in a row," Illinois guard Marcus Domask said. "We've got to get that edge back and that mindset of we're just not going to let them score. Our defense from the first to second half has been the game-changer for us."

Underwood pulled out his "You've got enjoy the thrill of an all-out effort" line Friday when discussing his team's recent slow starts and sometimes furious second-half comebacks. Avoiding slow starts is important. Focusing too much on that singular issue isn't.

"You have to be lighthearted," Underwood said. "You can't feel the pressure of this. It's just another game. It's on the grand stage, but you have to have fun. I thought we were a little bit tight (Thursday) and settled in."

The fun came Thursday in the second half when Illinois turned a one-point deficit early in the half into a 21-point lead in the span of 10 minutes of game action.

Matching better defense — actually getting stops — with the typical go-go-go offense was a confidence builder.

"It feels good," Domask said. "You can build confidence over the run. Once we get the rebound, we just want to go. We want to keep running and keep running it up on them."

That's what Duquesne will try to avoid in Saturday's second-round matchup with Illinois (27-8) that tips at 7:40 p.m. The Dukes (25-11) are well aware of how explosive the Illini offense can be. How it can flip a game on its head in a matter of minutes.

"Teams are going to throw their best punches when they're down, and in order to be successful, you have to take those punches and dish them back as well," Duquesne forward David Dixon said. "It's happened to us plenty of times this season. In the (Atlantic-10 tournament) we've taken punches. We've been down in games after being up by a lot. It's all about staying the course, keeping steady, don't let anything get you out of whack. If we do that and play the game we know how to play, we'll be fine."