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UConn romps back into Final Four with blowout of Illinois at NCAA tournament

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BOSTON — Late in the first half of Saturday’s East Regional final between No. 1 seed UConn and No. 3 Illinois, the Huskies’ dominant march toward back-to-back national championships seemed in danger. Not just their streak of double-digit wins, but staying alive in the NCAA tournament.

The Fighting Illini had fought back from an early deficit to tie the score with 1:49 left until halftime.

Less than eight minutes of game action later, UConn led by 30.

The Huskies ran off 30 straight points, an onslaught not seen this late in the NCAA tournament recently, en route to a 77-52 victory to advance to their second straight Final Four. UConn will face Alabama, an 89-82 winner over Clemson in the late game Saturday night, in the Final Four next weekend.

The 30-0 run was UConn’s largest since Dan Hurley took over as coach in 2018.

“30-0 is crazy,” said Tristen Newton, UConn’s All-American point guard.

Added Hurley: “It was a special level of basketball that we were playing.”

Entering Saturday’s game, one of the key tactical questions was how UConn would defend smooth-shooting center Coleman Hawkins and whether Illinois could utilize its 5-out offense to drag 7-foot-2 Donovan Clingan away from the basket and open driving lanes.

It quickly became apparent Illinois had no solution in dealing with Clingan. The projected lottery pick scored the first seven points and produced a virtuoso defensive performance.

“What he did to them at the rim defensively spooked them,” Hurley said. “And obviously they had no answers for him at the offensive end.”

Clingan’s presence in the paint was impossible to overcome. He was officially credited with five blocks, but that might have been one or two short. Illinois simply couldn’t score at the rim; the Illini missed eight of their first 10 layups and shot just 28.6% from 2-point range in the first half. Illinois star Terrence Shannon Jr. shot 2-for-12 and completely stopped driving to the basket midway through the second half.

“Doesn’t everyone have him projected in the lottery or close to it?” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said of Clingan. “We talked ad nauseam about spacing them. … Give him a lot of credit. Got an elite guy back there.”

In Clingan’s first 17 minutes on the floor, Illinois managed just four points. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Illinois went 0-for-19 on field goal attempts contested by Clingan.

He finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds, 5 blocks and 3 steals in 22 minutes.

“When he’s in there, he’s such a huge presence. He’s gonna block shots, he’s gonna really make everything tough. That’s exactly what he did,” sophomore forward Alex Karaban said. “He did the best job he did of walling up. He didn’t get in foul trouble for us, where in other games he might have. But he just went vertical every time he blocked it. It’s just a huge confidence boost. This really was one of his best performances.”

UConn failed to take advantage of Illinois’ early struggles, with an unexpected defensive slog breaking out between the two best offenses in the country. The Huskies missed their first 10 3-point attempts and had only two made shots outside the paint.

Newton didn’t make a shot in the first half, going 0-for-6. While Shannon struggled, Southern Illinois transfer Marcus Domask kept the Illini in the game, making a pair of early 3s and then using his size to score over smaller defenders in the post.

Back-to-back baskets by Domask late in the half tied the score at 23, but UConn scored the final five points for a 28-23 lead at the break.

“We weren’t worried at all,” Newton said. “We know what type of work we put in and how easy it is for us to score. We knew it was gonna start flowing. And we just knew when it started flowing, the game was going to be over.”

The Huskies opened the second half by scoring the next 25 points, putting the game well out of reach and continuing a dominant two-year NCAA tournament run. UConn has won its past 10 NCAA tournament games by at least 13 points, becoming the first team to win that many by double-digits. The Huskies have trailed for only 28 seconds in this year’s tournament and have beaten their four opponents by an average of 27.8 points.

They also became the third team in NCAA tournament history to win by 25-plus points in each of its two games directly leading up to the Final Four, joining 1993 Kentucky and 1955 La Salle.

In the 80 second-half minutes UConn has played in this year’s NCAA tournament, the Huskies have led by double digits for 76 minutes and three seconds.

“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,” Hurley said. “Kimani [Young] and Luke [Murray] prepare these guys with scouts at a quality level that any head coach in the country would be proud to put forth. Those two guys are amazing.

“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.”

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