Illinois advances to Elite Eight matchup against UConn, but not afraid of tall task

Illinois coach Brad Underwood was prepared. After his team’s tough 72-69 victory over Iowa State in the Sweet 16, he knew what was coming for him in the postgame locker room. And he one-upped his own players.

Underwood’s team was waiting … and waiting … to shower him with mini water guns in their locker room inside. Then the coach suddenly appeared. He opened the black curtain at the entrance to the locker room shirtless. He was wearing goggles. And he had an even bigger water gun to douse his players in.

A party ensued inside the Fighting Illini’s locker room as they celebrated the program’s first trip to the Elite Eight since 2005 in style. But it didn’t last long. It couldn’t.

Because to break down the next door to make the Final Four, they’ll have to get through the No. 1 team in the country. Illinois will meet UConn on Saturday night inside the Garden. To do so, the Illini will have to find a way to beat a Huskies team that just beat San Diego State by 30 and looks borderline unstoppable in their chase for a second consecutive national championship.

“We didn’t come here to win one game,” Underwood said. “We came here to win two. To advance to the Elite Eight is special, and we have a great challenge. We’ll dive into them sometime about 3 a.m. when we get back.”

Underwood made those comments shortly before 1 a.m. early on Friday morning. He allowed himself and his team to savor their Sweet 16 team victory, at least briefly.

The Illini – ranked as the nation’s No. 1 offense for portions of this season – needed to grit out their win over the Cyclones. Star guard Terrence Shannon Jr. scored 29 points to will them to the victory, but his team needed to overcome his absence at a critical juncture to pull this one out.

Shannon committed his fourth foul with 11:17 remaining and he left the game in foul trouble. Illinois led by eight at the time before Iowa State pulled within two at two different junctures. But the Illini didn’t fall apart. Coleman Hawkins and Marcus Domask made big plays, and Illinois’ defense – not necessarily its strength as of late – held the Cyclones without a field goal for nearly four minutes as they weathered the storm without Shannon.

“We have a saying in our program that offense wins games, defense wins championships, and these guys are all mature, old, they’ve been through it and understood,” Underwood said.

Underwood said he struggled on when to bring Shannon back in. He was tempted to wait until the under-four timeout, but he felt some urgency given the stage they were on. With 5:38 remaining, he put his star back in the game. Moments later, Iowa State pulled back within two on a Curtis Jones 3-pointer. But Shannon answered immediately with a corner 3-pointer.

“You’re in the Sweet 16, so you got to roll with your dudes,” Underwood said.

Illinois held on. Shannon’s steal and breakaway dunk – followed by a big scream for the crowd – sealed it with 24 seconds left.

Next is UConn, but the Illini aren’t necessarily intimidated by their dominant opponent. The Huskies opened as 7.5-point favorites.

“I have more of a respect for them. I think it’s a higher level of respect,” Hawkins said. “I think they’ve been playing great all year. I think they’re well-coached, and they do what they do.”

Added Domask: “I have a lot of respect for them and what they’ve done. We’ve played a lot of college basketball. I’ve played a lot of teams that are supposed to beat us, if you say they’re supposed to beat us. We’ll figure out how to guard them and how to score on us, but they have to do the same for us. It’s just another game for us really.”

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