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Illinois finally gets past opening weekend of March Madness with 89-63 rout of Duquesne

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Illinois fans had been waiting since 2005 for their team to get back to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. Their patience was finally rewarded.

Coach Brad Underwood made a point to salute the ones who accompanied the team to Omaha for the first weekend of the tournament, making his way to the front of the cheering section after the third-seeded Illini's 89-63 victory over Duquesne on Saturday night and raising his arms in celebration.

“This program is elite,” Underwood said. “To not be there in 18, 19 years, that's mind-numbing. It feels good to be advancing with this group. This is one of my favorite teams to coach. On to Boston.”

The Illini will play No. 2 seed Iowa State in an East Region semifinal at TD Garden on Thursday night. The Cyclones advanced with a 67-56 victory over seventh-seeded Washington State.

Illinois moved on with no drama. Terrence Shannon Jr. scored 30 points, Marcus Domask added 22 and Illinois made fast work of its 11th-seeded opponent from the Atlantic 10.

Illinois (28-8) hadn't made it through the first weekend of the tournament in eight previous appearances.

“Part of me wants to get real excited,” Illini forward Coleman Hawkins said. “And a part of me wants to keep the feeling of the job's not done yet. I’m happy making the Sweet 16. I’m aware of the history because it gets thrown in our face. The goal now is to become national champions because that’s why we’re here.”

Duquesne (25-12), which came in on a nine-game win streak, had its first tournament appearance since 1977 end with its worst loss of the season that sent 65-year-old coach Keith Dambrot into retirement.

“It wasn’t quite the way I wished it would end,” Dambrot said.

Jimmy Clark III scored 14 points and Fousseyni Drame had 13 for Duquesne.

The Dukes, who had scored fewer than 70 points in 21 of their previous 36 games, had said they would have to slow down an Illinois team averaging better than 84 per game to have a chance.

How did that go? Illinois was off and running in transition on Duquesne misses. The Illini led 50-26 at the half and by 32 points midway through the second half.

“They bullied us tonight and we got a little frazzled,” Dambrot said. “I think if we played again, we would play better. I don't think we were quite ready for the quickness level and strength.”

Not that the Illini needed it, but they also got a couple friendly bounces. Like when Marcus Domask's first 3-pointer went high off the front and back of the rim before it dropped through — a basket he celebrated with a chef's kiss and three fingers in the air. Or when Hawkins tried to draw a foul as he awkwardly put up a 3 and the ball banged off the backboard without drawing iron and he chased it down for an easy putback.

Hawkins blew a kiss himself after one of his back-to-back 3s midway through the first half. By then it was pretty much over. The Illini's 24-point halftime lead was their second-largest of the season and was the Dukes' biggest deficit at the break since they were down 27 against Kentucky in 2016.

Dambrot ends his career with a 529-305 record in 26 seasons, including 441-269 at Division I schools Duquesne, Central Michigan and Akron.

“It really didn't matter what the score was,” Dambrot said. “It’s irrelevant because we laid a good foundation for Duquesne to be a good program in the future.”

UP NEXT

Illinois and Iowa State will play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Illinois has won nine of the last 12 meetings but lost the last two, in 2018 and 2015.

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