Friday, April 12, 2024
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UConn blasts Illinois in the Elite Eight and is on the verge of an all-time dominant American sports story

BOSTON — Seldom in this sport — and in this beloved, bold, beautiful bracket of a tournament — have we seen a team this ferocious. This laughably dominant. I’m talking of the Connecticut Huskies, who are redefining the borders of our imagination with each passing game.

Rarely have we ever watched a regional final go from seemingly close to so preposterously non-competitive like what happened Saturday night in Boston.

For nearly 20 minutes, Illinois was fooled into thinking it had a hope of a shot against No. 1 overall seed Connecticut in the East Regional final. Then the second half started, the dam burst, the ground caved in on Illinois as UConn scorched off a historic 30-0 run that strapped it to a rocket headed for a second straight Final Four, cruising at the speed of sound.

The final: Huskies 77, Fighting Illini 52.

UConn’s historic NCAA Tournament tear continues.  

The game went from 23-23 with 1:23 remaining in the first half to 53-23 in favor of the Huskies with 13:17 to go in the game. They played the final 13 minutes out of obligation, nothing more. A tsunami landed off the Boston shore on this evening and Illinois was ripped away as a result, punted out of this bracket. 

Let me repeat: A 30-0 run. IN THE ELITE EIGHT. Against the No. 2 offense in the country. The Huskies held Illinois to a season-low 23 first-half points at just 0.73 points per possession, and the Fighting Illini went more than 45 minutes in real time without a point.

It was so outrageous, even Larry David — sitting in the first row, all of maybe 30 feet from UConn’s bench, was chirping at Hurley with approximately six minutes remaining on the clock.

“Shame on you, Hurley! Take those starters out! Stop coaching!” David heckled. “The game is over!”

Even when the game is over, the fight never stops for Hurley or his team. He said Friday that this group “feels different.”

“We broke through last year. We’ve established a level,” he said. “Maybe we feel a little less pressure as an organization because we feel like we’ve established a level now of where our program’s at, that we’re going to be in this spot moving forward. Obviously, this year and moving forward.”

On Saturday, with its latest spoliation, we all see and stand in awe of this. Hurley’s program is the best of the best. But even if this type of run isn’t repeatable in the years ahead (Hurley will sure as hell try, though), UConn’s championship hopes are very much repeatable. They seem inevitable. 

“These guys play every possession like it’s the end of the world,” Hurley said after Saturday night’s win. 

UConn went from averaging 0.89 points per possession in the first half to jolting up to 1.12 by end of game. 

“We didn’t even shoot good,” Hurley said with a laugh.

The Huskies were 3-of-17 from 3-point range and won by 25. A joke. 

The Huskies, who last year set an NCAA Tournament record by winning six games by 13-plus points and an average of 20.0 points, have beaten four teams in this tournament — in the East Region, which was viewed by many as the toughest on Selection Sunday — by an average of 27.8 points and with a +111 points differential through four games.

That’s the fourth-best point gap heading into a Final Four in history (1993 Kentucky, 1999 Duke and 1996 Kentucky the only ones with a wider margin). The Huskies are the only school ever to win 10 straight NCAA Tournament games by double digits — and they’ve done it by winning each one by at least 13 points. What’s more, Saturday was UConn’s 25th win in its last 26 games. They are making top-10 teams look like 16-seeds.

After UConn beat Northwestern in the second round, Hurley walked into the locker room and told his team, “I don’t know how we’re blowing these teams out in this setting. You guys are special.”

Special team. Dominant run. Is two wins away from writing a legacy among the all-time greats in college sports history. 

The 30-0 tempest will become the talking point/most remembered thing about this game. We’ll recall it for decades. But before the avalanche, UConn dominated because it was led by the biggest, baddest man in the building: Donovan Clingan. He eviscerated Illinois, finishing with 22 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks — and media on press row agreed the official block count might be one or two fewer than what he actually had. 

“I thought I had seven,” Clingan told me afterward. 

The defining sequence — the moment when the game was all the way over well before it was officially all the way over — came on an outrageous block from Clingan, then led to a dunk on the other end. 

Clingan’s had some outstanding games, but this might be the apex of his two-year career. Illinois only had 14 points on 5-of-38 shooting in 22 minutes when Clingan was on the court. UConn was +29 with Clingan on the floor. Truly absurd stats. His impact could be felt into all five states bordering Massachusetts. He joined Danny Manning as the only players to have a game of 20-plus points, 10-plus rebounds, five-plus blocks and multiple steals this deep into the tournament. 

“Let’s get the f— out here! Time to go to Phoenix!” Clingan yelled to Hurley in the tunnel as the two made their way to a raucous locker room. 

The Huskies are the first team to make back-to-back Final Fours since North Carolina in 2016-17. They’re the first reigning champions to do it since Florida in 2006-07.

And in the Huskies’ past eight tournament games, they’ve trailed for only 5 minutes and 50 seconds. They’re the only school to ever win back-to-back Elite Eight games by 25-plus points (Connecticut rolled Gonzaga 82-54 a year ago).

Entering Saturday, Illinois had scored 70-plus points in 21 straight games, 60-plus points in 70 straight games. It finished with 52. Vaporized. And like that, UConn just became the seventh team ever to hold its four opponents below 60 points in the lead-up to a Final Four. 

Terrence Shannon Jr., who entered Saturday scoring 25-plus points in seven straight games, finished with eight points on 2-of-12 shooting. He was shut down by Stephon Castle. Non-factor and wilted under UConn’s pressure.

“Steph, there’s a reason why in the basketball world people are as high on Steph as they are. He’s a winning player and has an incredible career in the NBA ahead of him,” Hurley said. 

Hurley credited the team’s performance not just to his players, but to the prep and pregame presentation of assistant Luke Murray, who has aced so many scouts for the Huskies this season, alongside assistant Kimani Young.

Connecticut will fly to Phoenix in the same situation it started this tournament: as the highest-seeded team with the best chance of winning it all. The main difference over the past two weeks is how UConn has gone from great team to all-time potential. It stands tall on the precipice of history. This team’s story transcends college basketball. 

“We’ve got NBA-level players that are just willing to share and they’ve created an unbelievable culture,” Hurley said. “We’re going to be tough to beat.”

Tough? Near-impossible. It’s a seventh Final Four for this blue blood. Somehow, Connecticut’s story keeps rising, keeps getting bigger, better, more unreal. You’re not supposed to be this good in 2024 in men’s college basketball. 

I will keep saying it until UConn wins the title or somebody shocks the world. There might be a team that can beat UConn. But I have no idea who is beating UConn in this tournament.

We head into the Final Four with a team capable of becoming not just the best UConn team of all time — but one of the best teams in college basketball history.

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