Home News Illinois loses to UConn 77-52 in Elite Eight

Illinois loses to UConn 77-52 in Elite Eight


BOSTON — At the end of a dismal first half for Illinois on Saturday in their Elite Eight showdown against UConn at TD Garden, comedian Larry David asked a Tribune reporter what in the world the Illini were trying to do.

Illini players couldn’t have started out any more jittery, continually driving inside against the Huskies and either getting rejected or missing contested shots inside. Marcus Domask was their only salvation, as Terrence Shannon Jr. and the rest of the starters completely disappeared.

David was sitting behind press row, rooting for the Illini.

“I’m for the underdog,” David said. “But this is insane. They keep trying to drive inside, doing exactly the opposite of what they should be doing. It’s just stupid.”

Things looked pretty, pretty, pretty bad for the Illini, who came in as prohibitive underdogs against the top-seeded Huskies and looked as if they were about to be blown out of the water from the opening minutes of the game.

But they still trailed by only five at the half in spite of themselves, giving Illini fans hope they could turn things around in the final 20 minutes. Perhaps an inspirational locker-room talk from coach Brad Underwood would help.

No such luck.

UConn took complete control at the outset of the second half, scoring 25 straight points during a mind-blowing 30-0 run and cruising to a 77-52 win to clinch a spot in the Final Four.

“Well, I think … I didn’t expect that,” coach Brad Underwood said.

UConn coach Dan Hurley celebrates with center Donovan Clingan after defeating Illinois in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament on March 30, 2024, in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
UConn coach Dan Hurley celebrates with center Donovan Clingan after defeating Illinois in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament on March 30, 2024, in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Illinois missed its first 14 shot attempts of the second half, failing to score until Justin Harmon’s basket at the 12:42 mark. Watching corn grow would’ve been more entertaining than watching the Illini try to hit a basket.

The Illini shot 26% on the night while UConn shot 52%, including an amazing 70% (21-for-30)  in the second half.

The defending-champion Huskies (35-3), seeking to win back-to-back championships for the first time since Florida in 2006-07, will face the winner of the late game between Alabama and Clemson on Saturday in Phoenix.

Domask led the Illini with 17 points, while Shannon finished with a season-low eight points on 2-for-10 shooting. UConn center Donovan Clingan, named Outstanding Player of the Tournament, led all scorers with 22 points and 10 rebounds.

Illinois’ dream season ended with a thud after a tournament run that inspired hope in Illini Nation that the school’s first national title was not just a pipe dream.

The pressure on Saturday was supposed to be on the Huskies, whom coach Dan Hurley referred to as “bulletproof.”

“Cool with me,” Domask said before the game. “We’re just going out there to play. I guess if the pressure is on them and they get tight, it’s ‘advantage us.’ ”

Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) is pressured by UConn center Donovan Clingan (32) while driving to the basket during the second half of the Elite 8 college basketball game in the men's NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 30, 2024, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) is pressured by UConn center Donovan Clingan (32) while driving to the basket during the NCAA Tournament matchup on March 30, 2024, in Boston. (Steven Senne/AP)
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - MARCH 30: Jaylin Stewart #3 of the Connecticut Huskies dunks the ball against the Illinois Fighting Illini during the second half in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at TD Garden on March 30, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
UConn’s Jaylin Stewart dunks against Illinois during the second half of the NCAA Tournament on March 30, 2024, in Boston. (Maddie Meyer/Getty)

But it was the Illini — with the exception of Domask — who came out tighter than Underwood’s blue jeans, looking like the weight of the world was on their shoulders. It was jarring to watch after the team looked so loose and relaxed Friday following their takedown of No. 2 seed Iowa State on Thursday.

Underwood said there were “a lot of tears” afterward. It was too much fun to end like that. The players helped soften Underwood’s image and made the program that much stronger.

“Being able to coach guys like this is what drives you,” he said.

UConn got off to a quick 9-0 lead on Clingan’s dunk and two putbacks, putting the Illini on defense from the get-go. Playing catchup, as they’ve had to do in several games since the start of the Big Ten Tournament, the Illini took ill-advised shot after ill-advised shot, almost none of which had a chance from the time it left the shooter’s hands.

They missed 11 straight field-goal attempts during a five-minute stretch in the first half and were only saved by Domask, who scored 15 of his 17 points in the half on 6-for-9 shooting. The rest of the Illini were a combined 4-for-26.

The plan to try to go inside on the Huskies was repeatedly met with missed layups and blocked shots. Shannon and Hawkins had only two points apiece in the half, and the Illini shot a dismal 29%. They also continued their atrocious free-throw shooting, missing four of five in the half when it was still a game.

Who figured it could only get worse?

When UConn went on its stunning run to start the second half, fueled by a partisan crowd in Boston, the Illini could do nothing to stop the stampede. Underwood just shook his head and watched with a feint smirk.

The loss put a damper on an exceptional season for the Illini, who won the Big Ten Tournament and made their first Elite Eight appearance since 2005. When they last advanced to the Elite Eight in 2005, they pulled off a comeback for the ages, beating Arizona in overtime after trailing by 15 points with 4 minutes, 4 seconds left in regulation.

But it was apparent early on this would be no repeat.

Underwood said it was an “incredible season” despite the ending. He shot back at a question about the program’s future without its stars, Shannon and Domask.

“Should we slip? Shame on you,” Underwood said. ‘We’re not going anywhere.”

Still, the super-soaker attacks between Underwood and his players were over, and the squirt guns were packed away for the season. A fun season with a comically bad ending.

It was time to turn to the portal again.

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