Terrence Shannon Jr. leads Illinois past Iowa State, into Elite Eight meeting with UConn

BOSTON — Beads of water sparkled on the TV screens that hung inside Illinois’ locker room in the depths of TD Garden.

As coach Brad Underwood emerged, his hair — dripping wet — hung in his eyes as he smiled.

“I got a very cold shower,” he said.

That shower was provided courtesy of super soaker water guns, which have become a postgame trademark of the Illini’s Tournament run. Thursday, after knocking off No. 3-seeded Iowa State 72-69 to set up an Elite Eight meeting — their first since 2005 — with No. 1-seeded UConn on Saturday, Illinois celebrated with a good ol’-fashioned water fight.

“This team doesn’t fear the moment,” Underwood said.

No, they don’t.

Not even when Illinois’ star, Terrence Shannon Jr. was sent to the bench with four fouls nine minutes into the second half did Underwood’s team show any signs of panic.

Is Illinois a better team with Shannon on the bench? Don’t be silly. Of course not, but as he sat there for the next five minutes, the Illini maintained their lead.

But that doesn’t mean Underwood wasn’t sweating.

“Both,” he said when asked if he was worried about losing his star. “That’s an elite defender that’s not in the game.”

Illinois had an eight-point lead when Shannon picked up his fourth foul. The Cyclones chipped away at it, coming within two points twice, but never took the lead or even tied the score in the second half. Less than a minute after checking back into the game, Shannon knocked down a three from the corner in front of the bench he had just come off of.

“To do that cold shows he stayed in the game mentally,” Underwood said. “He was always cheering and excited in the time-outs and on the bench. He was dialed in mentally. That’s not an easy thing to do to, step in and bury a three.”

Shannon finished with 29 points, shooting 10-for-19 from the field and 4-for-10 from three. He scored nine points in the second half, playing just six minutes.

Forget the late tipoff time. From the moment the ball was thrown up at center court, the Illini and every fan in attendance cheering for them were charged up. Their power source was, once again, Shannon.

As the stakes get higher, he seemingly only gets better.

The first half was littered with highlights from Shannon, but none sent a stronger message than what followed his second steal of the night 12 minutes into the game. After he picked off a pass from Iowa State forward Milan Momcilovic, Shannon broke out into the open court and took off through the air from just past the free-throw line. He threw down a dunk with the kind of force reserved for March’s maddest moments and stood in front of the crowd under the basket for an instant, basking in his dominance.

“He’s a dog,” forward Quincy Guerrier said. “One of the best players in the country.”

There is no questioning Shannon’s Tournament brilliance, but Thursday’s win over Iowa State exemplified other qualities that will be necessary to compete in Saturday’s matchup with UConn.

Struggling on the offensive end with Shannon on the bench, Illinois flipped the script and went toe-to-toe with Iowa State’s top-ranked defense. The Illini defended the three-point line well, forced tough twos and never wilted under the pressure of the second half.

“A lot of our conversation before the game was ‘ya, they’re the No. 1 defense, but we can guard, too,'” guard Luke Goode said.

In the final minute of the game, Illinois once again puffed out its chest and demonstrated the fearlessness Underwood has praised his team for. That fearlessness was necessary after they went 15-for-29 from the free-throw line.

In the waning seconds, Iowa State guard Curtis Jones made it a three-point game with three makes from the line. Illinois got the ball into the hands of their March magician — Shannon — on the ensuing inbound play. He was fouled and iced the game with two made free throws.

Thursday’s win provided an already confident Illinois team with more belief. As they sat, soaked in the remnants of their celebratory water-gun fight one phrase was being repeated.

“We have three more games to go,” Goode said.

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