UConn powers past Illinois to advance to second consecutive Final Four



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BOSTON — Dan Hurley strolled out to midcourt, the final timeout in Connecticut’s dismantling of yet another team in March providing a moment to celebrate.

He stuck his arms out wide and screamed, encouraging the Huskies fans filling TD Garden to scream louder. There was still 3:33 on the game clock, but the work was already done.

For the second consecutive year, UConn is headed back to the Final Four. And for the second consecutive year, the Huskies did it in dominant fashion.

What was a close game for 20 minutes turned into a demolition, as UConn pulled away from Illinois for a 77-52 win in the Elite Eight that didn’t even feel that close. The Huskies used a 30-0 run — including 25 consecutive points to begin the second half — to turn a tie game into a 53-23 laugher.

UConn’s 7-foot-2 big man, Donovan Clingan, was at the center of it. He disrupted Illinois defensively and rocked the rim offensively.

Clingan finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and three steals in just 22 minutes, but his impact went beyond the box score. There were the altered shots and the tipped rebounds. The fact that when he was on the floor, Illinois — the second-most efficient offense in the country — couldn’t score.

In Clingan’s 11 minutes on the floor in the first half, Illinois scored four points. In his first 5:25 on the floor in the second half, the Illini didn’t score.

Clingan was also in the middle of the run that decided the game. After he split a pair of free throws to put the Huskies up 33-23, Clingan met Illinois’ Quincy Guerrier at the rim, melting away an attempt at an emphatic dunk.

At the other end of the floor, he collected a Stephon Castle pass and finished a two-handed slam of his own, meeting his teammates in front of the UConn bench for a chest bump as Illinois called a timeout.

UConn, which defeated fifth-seeded San Diego State by 30 points on Thursday, raced to the Final Four with four victories by an average margin of 27.8 points. It’s reminiscent of a year ago, when UConn won six NCAA Tournament games by double digits, including a 28-point victory over Gonzaga in the Elite Eight.

Illinois, with its high-powered offense, was thought to be one of the few teams that could pose a challenge to the UConn machine. The Illini could score in several ways, and if their recently improved defense could hold up, they could finally be the team to force the Huskies to sweat in the final minutes in March.

But by the time Illinois scored its first points of the second half — seven minutes and 19 seconds into a game that became a runaway — it was abundantly clear: Any such test would need to occur next week in Phoenix.

Required reading

(Photo: Winslow Townson / USA Today)





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