'We're not done yet'


— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) March 25, 2024

OMAHA, Neb. — Brad Underwood left the Illinois locker room at CHI Health Center on Saturday night headed for the postgame press conference with four words for the collection of media members waiting just outside.

"I'm drenched," Underwood said. "I'm soaked."

The Illinois men's basketball coach was also happy.

Underwood gave almost as good as he got during the celebratory aftermath of the Illini's 89-63 win against Duquesne in the second round of the NCAA tournament thanks to entering the locker room wearing goggles and carrying a super soaker.

Our team of 10 w/ #Illini reaction near & far:


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— The News-Gazette (@news_gazette) March 24, 2024

A win celebrated because all wins are, but with a bit more meaning this time.

That's why Underwood pumped up the crowd as he left the court. It was mostly just Illinois fans remaining.

The Iowa State contingent that packed CHI Health Center for the day's first second-round game and stuck around to see who the Cyclones would play this upcoming week in Boston had mostly filtered out of the arena by the time the Illini's blowout was complete. They had seen what they needed to see.

So Underwood raised his arms in celebration to those clad in orange and blue who remained. Pumped his fist. Completed as many high fives as he could as he headed back through the tunnel and to the locker room to celebrate with his team.

Because Illinois is a Sweet 16 team again. Finally.

"That's for the fans," Underwood said after helping Illinois advance past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005. "I always thought I'd get here — and beyond. It's not about that or me or getting this off my back. You guys make that up. This is a completely different team. What I'm excited for is it's been since 2005. This program hasn't had that. I don't care about individual stuff. It's now this program. We've got incredible facilities. We've had a lot of success. We've won Big Ten championships. Our fans deserve all of that. That's what that was for.

"I'm so happy to see all those people who travel all over with us and spend their hard-earned money caring about Illinois basketball. That's for them, and we're not done yet."

Coleman Hawkins experienced the March disappointment the past three seasons. A second-round exit as a No. 1 seed in 2021 to Loyola Chicago. A 15-point loss in the second round to Houston in 2022. Then last year's first-round loss to Arkansas.

"This is kind of something that's been nagging for more so fans rather than what we've been focused on," the Illinois forward said. "We got it done for them. Part of me wants to be really happy, but part of me wants to keep that, 'Job's-not-finished' mindset. We celebrate this one for a little bit, and then we move our focus on to Iowa State and focus on to the next game because we still have a lot we want to accomplish."

But one box along that path is checked. Some memories of maddening Marches eased by a team that made it look easy getting back to that level as a program Saturday night.

Still, nearly two decades between Sweet 16 appearances? Luke Goode called it "pretty crazy."

"This is a historical program with great players that have come before us," the Illinois guard said. "To be a part of the team that kind of broke out of that mold is pretty special. ... Now, we're in the Sweet 16. Anything can happen.

"(Terrence Shannon Jr.) held up six fingers when he was on the stage at the Big Ten championship. He didn't hold up two. We've got four more to go."

But why was this the team to snap that streak? A team with multiple All-Americans and a No. 1 seed couldn't in 2021 in the Indianapolis bubble. Neither could its successors. Until Saturday.

"I think we're just unique," Hawkins said. "We're really versatile. I think we earned a three-seed that's still a pretty tough three-seed. There's a lot of good teams on our side of the bracket, but I think our uniqueness has helped us break through that."

Underwood called this team "built for the postseason." A versatile, veteran group that's sorted out what works best. With some guys that know what it feels like when a season ends short of expectations. Well short in some cases.

"Everybody on this team knows their roles," Goode said. "Everybody knows what they need to do to help this team win. There's no selfishness whatsoever. We don't have guys in the locker room after games, if they don't play well or don't play a lot, upset about things. That's what it takes this time of year. Some teams you've got guys who are selfish and don't want the team to win. We don't have any of that."