April 21, 2024

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UConn cruises past Illinois to advance to its second straight Final Four

UConn cruises past Illinois to advance to its second straight Final Four

BOSTON — Dan Hurley walked across center court with 3:33 to play, a timeout amid another March dismantling that allowed him a moment to enjoy the spectacle.

He faced the crowd across from his seat and extended his arms wide, drawing a roar from the Huskies fans who filled TD Garden. “we've got-!” he shouted.

With an increase of 29 points as time diminished, he could at least exhale.

“I finally felt like we got it,” Hurley said with a smile.

By now, UConn has made a habit of celebrating the final buzzer. For the second year in a row, the Huskies are back in the Final Four. And for the second year in a row, they did so in dominant fashion, beating third-seeded Illinois 77-52 in the Elite Eight on Saturday in a game that wasn't even close.

What had been a tight 20-minute game became a demolition mission when the Huskies used a 30-0 run — including 25 straight points to start the second half — to turn a tie game into a 53-23 laugher.

UConn's 7-foot-2 center, Donovan Clingan, was in the middle of it, disrupting Illinois defensively and shaking the edge offensively. Clingan finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and three steals in just 22 minutes, but his impact went beyond the box. There were the modified shots and the overturned rebounds.

When he was on the floor, Illinois — the second most efficient offense in the country — couldn't score.

In Clingan's first 17 minutes on the floor Saturday, UConn outscored Illinois 34-4. Yes, four.

Clingan was also in the middle of the match-clinching round. After splitting a pair of free throws to give the Huskies a 33-23 lead, Clingan met Illinois' Quincy Guerrier at the rim, thwarting his attempt for an emphatic dunk.

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At the other end of the floor, he took a pass from Stephon Castle and finished with a two-handed slam, meeting teammates in front of the UConn bench for a chest bump as Illinois called a timeout.

“That was like 'wow,'” guard Hassan Diarra said.

UConn, which defeated fifth-seeded San Diego State by 30 points on Thursday, raced to the Final Four with four wins by an average margin of 27.8 points. All 10 of the Huskies' NCAA Tournament victories over the past two seasons have come by double digits.

Illinois, with its potent offense, was thought to be one of the few teams that could pose a challenge to the UConn machine. He appeared to be hunting huskies on his day off. Connecticut made a season-low 3-pointers made and endured just one shot from 12 combined from guards Tristen Newton and Stefon Castle.

But the Huskies held Illini leading scorer Terrence Shannon Jr. to eight points on 2-of-12 shooting and kept the Illini off the scoreboard for the first four minutes of the first half and the first 7:19 of the second.

“When your defense is elite, which is ours, and your offense is elite, which we have, and the rebounding margins show we're an elite rebounding team and generally play harder than our opponent, we share the ball and have depth with different people,” Hurley said. Our first team All-American goalie (Newton) makes a field goal today, and we shot 3-for-17 from 3 and went on a 30-0 run. So depth.

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“We're not flawed in any particular way, which makes you as bulletproof in this tournament as you can be to survive a bad shot or a bad performance from a star like Tristan.”

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(Photo: Winslow Townson/USA Today)