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Illinois' Final Four hopes evaporate in second-half collapse against defending champ UConn

BOSTON (AP) — In the first half, it looked like it might be possible.

For 20 minutes, Illinois played defending champion UConn better — and closer — than any of Huskies’ previous three NCAA Tournament opponents. The Illini trotted into the locker room trailing just 28-23.

Then, it happened — UConn scored the first 25 points of the second half over a 7 minute, 41-second span, part of a 30-0 run that cratered the Illini’s hopes reaching their first Final Four since 2005. The Huskies won 77-52 on Saturday night.

“I didn’t expect that,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “I thought we were in a good spot at half, especially after the slow start. ... We obviously came out in the second half and got blitzed.”

It was the second largest loss in the NCAA Tournament for the Illini, trailing only a 76-47 defeat to Kentucky in the 1949 Final Four.

Illinois entered this year's tournament with the nation’s most efficient offense, overwhelming teams with its speed and toughness in the paint. Yet it was the Illini's defense that pestered the Huskies early, limiting them to 33% shooting and 1 of 11 from the 3-point line.

The one player Illinois couldn’t seem to contain, though, was 7-foot-2 center Donovan Clingan, who muscled his way to nine points, six rebounds and two blocks before halftime.

He was an even bigger problem for the Illini after the break.

Clingan finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, sparking a Huskies team that shot 70% (21 of 30) in the second half.

“We went at him soft a lot of times,” Illinois forward Marcus Domask said. “He disrupted everything downhill for us.”

Meanwhile, Illinois couldn’t make a shot, missing 14 consecutive attempts to open the half and 17 total during the Huskies’ run. In addition, Illinois had three turnovers, leading to five UConn points. UConn also had seven layups or dunks during the 30-0 spurt.

“It felt like no shots were going in,” Illini forward Coleman Hawkins said. “And it felt like they were getting out in transition and scoring every single time. You look up, and you’re still at 23.”

In what may have been the most telling statistic, Illinois was 0 for 19 on shots Clingan contested.

“I thought Clingan dominated the first half with his defensive abilities,” Underwood said. “He was good. He did his job. ... Give them credit. I think we ran out of gas a little bit.”

Underwood said the lasting memories of his team should be what got it to this point.

“I think there’s nothing that should allow them to have their head down. You won 29 games. You played in the Elite Eight. You’re part of a Big Ten championship,” he said. “It’s not just players and coaches in tears, there’s a lot of support staff and people that got really close with this group and got to go along on the ride that they gave us.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness