UConn annihilates Illinois on its way back to the Final Four

BOSTON – Another night, another set of records broken.

Most importantly, though, UConn is heading to its second consecutive Final Four.

With 1:49 left in the first half, Marcus Domask nailed a three to tie the game for Illinois. When the Fighting Illini next scored, they cut the Huskies’ lead down to 28. Yes, 28. Yes, UConn went on a 30-0 run, its longest run since a 32-0 sequence on Dec. 12, 1990.

That game was against New Hampshire. And while a run of such magnitude is impressive no matter who it’s against, leave it to this year’s team to pull it off in the Elite Eight.

UConn ultimately prevailed, 77-52, and cut down the net at the TD Garden. The Huskies, who have won 10 straight NCAA Tournament games by double digits (a record), are two wins away from their second straight national championship. They will face Alabama next Saturday in the semifinals in Arizona.

“We don’t want to experience the March Madness experience where we have to play a close game,” Alex Karaban said. “This is our March Madness. Everybody has a different story, this is our story – dominating teams. We’re hard to prep for, we’re hard to scout for, we have too many good players.”

The run, it goes without saying, had more than its fair share of memorable moments.

Donovan Clingan, named the East Regional Most Outstanding Player, fittingly had the sequence that all-but-buried the Fighting Illnini. On the defensive end, he forcefully rejected Quincy Guerrier’s dunk attempt with his left hand, got the rebound, and then dunked off a feed from Stephon Castle for a 35-23 UConn lead. Brad Underwood called timeout, the Huskies’ portion of the crowd went nuts, and Illinois, for all intents and purposes, was finished.

Clingan was the best player on the floor, finishing with 22 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and three steals. He picked a great time to have the game of his UConn life. Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini’s star, Terrence Shannon Jr., averaging 23.5 points per game, was held to eight points on 2-of-12 shooting, with the freshman Castle disturbing him throughout.

“(Donovan’s) a dawg,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “Don’t let the smile fool you. I think the biggest thing with him, which is different from a lot centers, is that he loves to play basketball. He loves sports, he loves to compete. He’s brought so much energy to our locker room and so much confidence, the guy has been awesome.”

“I thought Clingan dominated the first half with his defensive abilities,” noted Illinois coach Brad Underwood. “We obviously came out in the second half and got blitzed. Got some decent looks. Kind of felt like we were doing some of the things we’ve always done, but Donovan made good blocks.”

Illinois challenged Clingan early and were met with heavy resistance. Per ESPN Stats, Illinois was 0-for-19 on shots challenged by Clingan. This is crazy on two levels: one, the percentage. Two, the number of attempts. It would’ve been a better idea to switch that strategy.

“It spooked them,” Hurley said. “It spooked them at the rim.”

Karaban, from nearby Southborough, Mass., thrilled his local fans and UConn fans, with a thunderous two-handed dunk while being fouled. Karaban first held himself up on the rim to prevent a fall. Once regaining his balance, he hung on the rim for a few extra seconds, screamed in joy and took in the scene.

“That was my favorite play, for me personally, besides cutting down the nets and celebrating with the team,” Karaban said. “That was my favorite highlight of the game because I’ve been to this arena so many times and when I dunk it, I never hang on the rim. In lay-up lines, you never see me hanging on the rim. In practice, never. For some reason, something told me to hang on the rim, do it in the city I love, do it in the arena I love. I will always look back at it and love it.”

For good measure, Castle added an offensive highlight to cap the run, beating Coleman Hawkins with a spin move and throwing down a reverse dunk with authority.

The run captured UConn’s season in a nine-minute clip. Cutting and passing execution, sealing the perimeter, rim protection – it was all there. And Illinois could do nothing about it.

How does this happen?

“When your defense is elite, which ours is, and when your offense is elite, which ours is, and our rebounding margins show we’re an elite rebounding team, and we generally play harder than our opponent, (that’s how),” said Hurley, whose team held Illinois to a season-low in points.

“We share the ball and have depth. Our All-American point guard today (Tristen Newton) didn’t make a field goal, and we shot 3-of-17 from three and we still went on a 30-0 run. We’re not flawed in any particular way, which makes you as bulletproof in this tournament as possible to survive bad shooting or a bad performance from your star, like Tristen.”

Cam Spencer, though, had another strong game, recording 11 points and 12 rebounds. Hassan Diarra (11 points) and Samson Johnson (10) were both huge off the bench.

When it was over, each Husky had their turn climbing the ladder and cutting down a piece of the net. The crowd, not surprisingly, enjoyed Hurley spinning the net around like a rally towel.

They, especially, were excited during Clingan’s time. A Bristol Central High legend, Clingan, as always, had plenty of support from his hometown in the stands. Arizona is not exactly an easy trip to make, so there’s a good chance many of them saw Clingan, who is a highly rated NBA prospect, play in a UConn uniform for the last time in-person. They sent him off with a loud ovation.

“I grew up dreaming of playing for the University of Connecticut,” Clingan said. “To be able to wear this jersey every single day and play for such a historic and special program and insert myself and my teammates into history, it’s special. Everybody dreams of this as a young basketball player, and there’s only a certain percentage of people that make it to this level. Don’t take any moment for granted, go out, give it everything you’ve got.  I’m extremely blessed to be in this position.”

“I don’t know if there will be such a special connection between a player and a state school, especially the way the Bristol community shows up,” added Hurley. “He’s a larger-than-life figure in the state. His legend is growing. The way he handles it, the humility, the way he shares. He’s beloved by his teammates because he doesn’t throw it in your face everything that comes his way – the love, the adulation. He’s a different dude.”

The Huskies, winners of 11 straight, recorded their 35th victory of the season, a school-record. And they need two wins to become the first back-to-back national champions since Joakim Noah and the 2007 Florida Gators.

“When we get on that bus ride back tonight, it will feel real, like damn, we really made it to the Final Four again,” Karaban said. “Right now, we’re just taking in the moment, because making it to back-to-back Final Fours is really (rare). We’re just enjoying it all.”

At this point, the main question may not be if UConn will win back-to-back titles, but instead, how much will it crush the competition by on its way there? The Huskies have reached a new level of absurdity. Absurdity in the best possible way.

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