Men's College Basketball

UConn Dominates Illinois, Heads to Final Four


Illinois forward Marcus Domask attempts a hook shot over the outstretched arms of a UConn defender during Saturday’s East Regional Final at Boston’s TD Garden. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

The No. 3 seed Illinois Fighting Illini, the second best offensive team in the nation, kept it close in the first half but a 30-0 run by the top-seeded UConn Huskies, the best offensive team in the nation, sealed their fate. UConn downed Illinois 77-52 in front of 19,181 at Boston’s TD Garden in the East Regional Final on Saturday.

UConn, led by center Donovan Clingan, got off to a fast start with a 9-1 run to begin the game. Clingan scored the team’s first seven points.

Illini forward Marcus Domask led the comeback. After a free throw following a foul by UConn guard Tristen Newton, he rattled off a jump shot and a three-pointer. Guard Terrence Shannon Jr.’s dunk then pulled Illinois to within three points, 13-10 with 12:34 remaining in the half.

In the next minute of play, UConn scored on a basket from guard Hassan Diarra, and Domask canned another three-pointer for the Illini.

Illinois shooting went cold. Over the next three-and-a-half minutes, the Illini went 0-for-11 in field goal shooting. UConn wasn’t much better. Diarra and Clingan each scored on layups during that span. When Domask made a layup to end the scoring drought, UConn was on top 19-15 with 6:18 left in the half.

Domask struck again with a back-to-back layup and jumper to tie the score 23-23 with 1:49 remaining in the half. Domask was responsible for 15 of the Illinois points in the quarter.

What happened next rarely happens in the annals of NCAA College Basketball. UConn went on a run. A large run. A record-setting run… well, almost.

It started with 1:22 left in the half. Diarra made a three-pointer. Then Newton was fouled and made two free throws. The halftime score was 28-23 in favor of the Huskies, who finished the half on a 5-0 run.

UConn center Donovan Clingan shoots a reverse layup over Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins during Saturday’s East Regional Final at Boston’s TD Garden. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

When play resumed, it was as if the Illini stayed in the locker room. There was nothing they could do to stop the Huskies, whose performance centered upon center Donovan Clingan. Illinois did not have an answer for him. Clingan scored on a jump shot. Then forward Alex Karaban made a layup. Clingan dunked. Guard Cam Spencer hit a jump shot. Karaban hit a three-pointer.

The run ended when Illini guard Justin Harmon made a layup. By that time 50 minutes had been taken off the clock in real time (including the halftime break) and UConn finished a 30-0 run. Illinois shot 1-for-19 for 5.3% field goal shooting during this span. The score was 53-25 in favor of the Huskies with 12:41 left in the contest.

Even though the UConn run was impressive, it is not the largest in history. The NCAA Division I Men’s record for the longest run in a game is 40-0 set by the University of Ohio over Cleveland State on Dec. 6, 2020. Previously, Oklahoma rattled off a 39-0 run against Weber State on Dec. 22, 2014.

Clearly the momentum was on the side of the Huskies. Illinois regrouped to try to get back into the game, but for a team that had not lost by double-digits all season, the huge run crushed their spirit.

UConn head coach Dan Hurley did not substitute his bench, instead holding onto the belief that there was still enough time for the Fighting Illini to regroup, he opted to keep his starters in.

Illini guard Luke Goode and UConn guard Tristen Newton tangled. They were each assessed a technical foul with 9:16 remaining on the clock.

For Illinois, it took forward Amani Hansberry to step up to will his team back into the game. Hansberry hit two three-pointers and made two free-throws in a three-minute span. It was 69-42 in favor of UConn with 4:30 remaining when Hansberry hit his last free shot.

Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr. attempts a shot as UConn center Donovan Clingan defends on the play during the East Regional Final at Boston’s TD Garden on Saturday. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

Harmon was fouled by Huskies forward Jaylin Stewart while attempting a three-pointer. Harmon made all three free shots. Illinois forward Quincy Guerrier connected on a triple, and guard Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn shot two free throws with :34 left on the clock.

When the final buzzer sounded, UConn found themselves the victors over the Big Ten champions by a score of 77-52.

The Huskies went 31-for-60 (51.7 percent) from the field; 3-for-17 (17.6 percent) from three-point range; and 12-for-17 (70.6 percent) in free throw shooting. They turned the ball over nine times which led to eight Illinois points.

“I knew that Brad [Underwood] was burning through timeouts and he did everything he could to stop the momentum, but it was – we didn’t shoot good. I mean, we went 3-for-17 from three. We’ve obviously got to get that together,” said UConn head coach Dan Hurley regarding the 30-0 run. “But the stops, the transition efficiency, anytime we were inefficient in transition, these guys playing against the smaller line up, Tristen, all the guards knew that the ball needed to go to Donovan tonight. That’s the beauty of the team. It was a special level of basketball that we were playing.”

The Fighting Illini went 17-for-67 (25.4 percent) from the field; 6-for-23 (26.1 percent) from three-point range; and 12-for-17 (70.6 percent) from the charity stripe.

“You know, we got down double digits in three Big Ten games. And it was staying positive. It was not as much problem solving,” said Illinois head coach Brad Underwood. “I thought we were getting the same shots we’ve always gotten, and [Donovan] Clingan erased a few of them. We missed some opportunities to shoot some threes. But, again, it was all about staying together, being the team that we’ve always been.”

“Again, give them credit. I think we ran out of gas a little bit. That’s no excuse. But just keeping this group in a positive light and keep them trying to believe we can do anything, because we did it all year,” Underwood added.

UConn dominated 52-20 in points-in-the-paint and held a 12-8 advantage in second chance points along with a 13-8 advantages in fast break points.

UConn guard Hassan Diarra shoots over the outstretched arms of Illinois forward Quincy Guerrier during Saturday’s East Regional Final at Boston’s TD Garden. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

“Our defense is elite. Our offense is elite. We rebound the ball. These guys play every possession like it’s the end of the world,” said Hurley. “We’ve got NBA-level players that are just willing to share and have created an unbelievable culture. We’re going to be tough to beat.”

Donovan Clingan led the Huskies with 22 points. Cam Spencer added 11 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Hassan Diarra netted 11 points. Alex Karaban and Samson Johnson each scored 10, the only other Huskies in double-digit scoring. Spencer, Tristen Newton and Stephon Castle each dished five assists.

“Really in the second half, the way we were moving the ball on offense and how we were playing for one another really just opened up opportunities to dominate in the post and find cutters cutting and getting open shots,” said Clingan.

“Just one thing about this team is we always play for the guy next to us. We’re not worried about our stats. We’re not worried about self. We’re worried about the person next to us, worried about the team, and worried about walking out with a ‘W,” he added.

Marcus Domask led the Fighting Illini with 17 points, the only player in double-digits scoring. Luke Goode led Illinois with six rebounds and Terrence Shannon Jr., led in assists with three.

“We’ve had a great year, filled with great people, and it was just a fun group to be around. There was no cliques. There was nothing like that,” said Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins. “Everybody’s always included. I hope to – I hope that same feeling goes in the future. I want to stick around with this group and have fun with this group for the rest of my life.”

Now the UConn Huskies head to Phoenix, Arizona and the Final Four where they will continue their national championship defense when they play the No. 4 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday April 6, 2024 at State Farm Stadium.

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