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Mar 29, 2024 7:51 pm

Top-seeded UConn bracing for tough test vs. No. 3 Illinois

connecticut huskies

BOSTON — Even though top-seeded UConn has put together a dominant NCAA Tournament run, it isn’t expecting to walk right by third-seeded Illinois when the teams meet in the Elite Eight on Saturday.

The Huskies (34-3) have won their first three games of the tourney by an average of 28.7 points, most recently recording an 82-52 blowout over fifth-seeded San Diego State on Thursday in the Sweet 16.

However, UConn coach Dan Hurley isn’t taking the Fighting Illini (29-8) lightly.

“Illinois is one of the best teams in the country,” Hurley said. “With one of the best teams in the country, we expect a 40-minute war going into every game. … With San Diego State, we didn’t think we’d be plus-21 on the backboard versus that rebounding team.”

That dominant performance on the glass against the Aztecs included a whopping 21 offensive rebounds that translated to 12 second-chance points.

But crashing the boards might not come as easy on Saturday, as all five of Illinois’ starters measure 6-foot-6 or taller.

“UConn is a really good team, so I think our size and our versatility really help us,” Fighting Illini guard/forward Marcus Domask said. “They beat a lot of teams on the boards, they get a lot of second-chance points, so … we just gotta play really physical and keep them off the boards to give ourselves a better chance.”

Size wasn’t what Illinois used to get past second-seeded Iowa State on Thursday, though.

Instead, the Fighting Illini turned to Terrence Shannon Jr., who poured in a game-high 29 points on 10-of-19 shooting in the 72-69 victory. Shannon has now scored at least 25 points in seven straight games dating back to the regular-season finale.

With his third straight NCAA Tournament game of at least 20 points, Shannon matched a program record previously set by Don Sunderlage (1951), Nick Anderson (1989) and Luther Head (2005).

Illinois coach Brad Underwood hasn’t seen a player like Shannon since the late 2000s, when Underwood was an assistant at Kansas State and got to play a role in developing Michael Beasley.

“We don’t run much to him. We’re not running a lot of action to him,” Underwood said of how Shannon fits into the game plan. “Marcus gets a ton of the attention, Coleman (Hawkins) gets a ton of the attention in terms of offensive stuff, but I’ve used the term organic, it just kind of happens. He finds it.

“He’s been great all year.”

Shannon leads the Fighting Illini at 23.5 points per game. Domask is second at 15.8 and Hawkins rounds out the top three at 12.3.

The Huskies have been a bit more balanced, with five players averaging at least 10.9 points. One of those double-figure scorers, Donovan Clingan, was held in check on Thursday, finishing with eight points and eight rebounds.

Still, UConn plans to feature Clingan as a centerpiece, even if the 7-foot-2 big man isn’t stuffing the stat sheet.

“It starts with defense. He affects all shots around the rim. He gets good rebounds,” Huskies guard Tristen Newton said of Clingan. “I’m open off all his screens. If it’s on the ball or off the ball, he sets great screens. Just throw it up to the rim, he’s going to get it. So he’s the most impactful player in the country, we would say so.”

UConn is looking to reach its seventh Final Four in program history as it continues its title defense. Illinois will attempt to wrap up the East Region to punch its sixth ticket to the Final Four, and the Fighting Illini’s first since 2005.

Saturday marks the first meeting between the teams since 1994.

–Nick Galle, Field Level Media

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