Home News Illinois to face UConn for spot in Final Four

Illinois to face UConn for spot in Final Four


BOSTON — Illinois appeared loose, relaxed and carefree Friday, a day after their heart-pounding, late-night win against Iowa State that sent them to the Elite Eight.

It’s an attitude they need to carry over into Saturday’s showdown with top-seeded UConn, a prohibitive favorite after dominating in their three tournament victories.

Here are five takeaways from their latest leg of the Illini’s memorable journey.

1. Coach Brad Underwood’s shirtless postgame assault on players with a supersoaker squirt gun after Thursday’s win caught them by surprise.

“I don’t know if I thought I’d see the shirt off with the water gun,” guard Marcus Domask said. “I don’t think that was part of the recruiting process. You know, he gets the rep of being the hard-nosed guy. But on the inside, he’s really kind of soft.”

“Soft,” forward Coleman Hawkins confirmed.

“I’ve never been called that in my life, Marcus,” Underwood said in mock protest.

The players have helped soften up Underwood by poking fun at his madman image. Underwood has enjoyed being the target.

“It’s fun,” he said. “They’re dragging me along for an unbelievable ride. I mean, this makes you never want to quit coaching. It’s not the winning, it’s  who they are. Every one of these guys is a comedian in their own right. Yet we know when to flip the switch.

“Yeah, they’ve got a 60-year-old man taking his shirt off and doing his best dad bod. So probably not very good, not very easy to look at.”

Photos: Illinois beats Iowa State 72-69 in Sweet 16

Illini players also started a tradition at the regional in Omaha, Neb., of pushing back Underwood’s chair when he neglected to do so after he left the stage. Domask said it was just showing how to be a “respectful human being” without naming names.

When they left the stage before Underwood on Friday, Domask, Hawkins, Ty Rodgers and Quincy Guerrier crawled under the table, then emerged wearing their hoodies over their heads and walking in unison. Underwood just shook his head and joked that Hawkins just injured himself.

“Coach Brad is a standup guy,” Rodgers said. “The relationship he has with all of us is huge. That’s why we play so hard for him. When he yells at us it’s easy to respond and not get in our feelings.”

Said Domask: “Coaches that continuously yell and don’t have a relationship is where heads collide. I feel like we all trust Coach, and he trusts us.”

2. UConn is seeking to become the first repeat champions since Billy Donovan’s Florida teams in 2006-07.

The Huskies are 8½ point favorites Saturday, so Hawkins said there was “no pressure” on Illinois. As hot as Illinois has been during its own seven-game winning streak, including the victory against No. 2 seed Iowa State late Thursday, the players believe they’re capable of anything.

“I don’t view myself as an underdog right now,” Domask said. “We don’t view our team as underdogs. People do, but we don’t.”

The Huskies have steamrolled their competition during a 10-game winning streak since Feb. 24. The only team that came within double-digits in the last seven games was St. John’s, which lost 95-90 in the Big East Tournament semifinals. Their only losses were to Kansas, Seton Hall and Creighton.

But Underwood believes the Big Ten is the best conference in the nation, and their nonconference schedule included Tennessee and Marquette, both of which made the Sweet 16. The Illini lost to both.

“You play the best to get ready to play the best,” Underwood said. “Again, we’ve never run away from scheduling at Illinois. We’re always going to play really, really good people. We’re going to challenge ourselves on the road, as we did with Tennessee, a game that could have gone either way.

“I think this team has grown a great deal since those games. We were a rebound away against Purdue in a hard-fought game (March 5), which was our last loss. UConn is terrific, and they’re right up there with the best teams we’ve played. But we’ve seen them all in the Big Ten as well.”

3. Terrence Shannon Jr. is perhaps the hottest player in the NCAA Tournament.

Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) drives to the basket past Iowa State guard Keshon Gilbert during the second half of the Sweet 16 game on March 28, 2024, in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) drives to the basket past Iowa State guard Keshon Gilbert during the second half of the Sweet 16 game on March 28, 2024, in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Shannon’s 29-point night Thursday, despite missing time with foul trouble, gave him seven straight games with 20 or more points. His third straight tournament game with 20 or more tied the Illini record held by Don Sunderlage (1951), Nick Anderson (1989) and Luther Head (2005).

It’s been a show to behold. But Shannon’s attorney has advised him not to speak to the media, so he’s never on the podium or in the locker room while his teammates do interviews. Hawkins, who is Shannon’s roommate, said he doesn’t mind letting everyone else deal with the media. His teammates concurred.

“Everybody is enjoying it,” Guerrier said. “Terrence is playing at a higher level, and we need him to keep doing what he’s doing to be successful.”

4. Illinois went 15-of-29 from the free-throw line Thursday.

They’re 74% from the line this season and need to at least hit that average if they hope to upset UConn. Shannon, a 79% free-throw shooter in his career, was 5 of 10.

“We actually struggled early in the year in free-throw shooting,” Domask said. “Obviously we didn’t shoot too well from the line, but (it’s) one game. On to the next.”

5. Illinois hopes to be the team to break the Big Ten’s championship drought

No Big Ten school has won the NCAA Tournament since Michigan State in 2000 despite sending many top-ranked teams into March Madness, including a record nine in 2021.

That was the year No. 1 seed Illinois lost in the second round to Loyola.

“I thought we were really good and had a bad day,” Underwood said of the Ayo Dosunmu-led team. “I can’t speak to anybody else’s successes or disappointments in the tournament, but I felt like that team had as good an opportunity as anybody.”

Of the six Big Ten teams in this year’s tournament, only Illinois and Purdue advanced past the second round. Purdue played Gonzaga on Friday night for a chance at the Elite Eight.

“There’s been a lot of good teams,” Underwood said. “It’s been the best league in the country for a long time. Very passionate, great coaches. But yeah, it would be nice. I think everything is cyclical a little bit, and I hope we’ve got multiple teams in (the Final Four) this year.”

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