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UConn powers past Illinois to advance to second consecutive Final Four

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UConn powers past Illinois to advance to second consecutive Final Four

BOSTON — Dan Hurley sauntered across midcourt with 3:33 to play, a final timeout amid another March dismantling providing him a moment to take in the scene.

He faced the crowd opposite his bench and stuck his arms out wide, provoking the Huskies fans filling TD Garden to roar. “Our s—!” he shouted.

Up by 29 points with time dwindling, he could exhale at least.

“I finally felt like we had it,” Hurley said, smiling.

By now, UConn is used to celebrating the final buzzer. For the second consecutive year, the Huskies are going back to the Final Four. And for the second consecutive year, they did it in dominant fashion, pummeling third-seeded Illinois 77-52 in the Elite Eight on Saturday in a game that didn’t even feel that close.

What was a tight game for 20 minutes became a demolition job when 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 center, Donovan Clingan, was at the center of it, disrupting Illinois defensively and rocking 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.

When he was on the floor, Illinois — the second-most efficient offense in the country — couldn’t score.

In Clingan’s first 17 minutes on the floor Saturday, UConn outscored Illinois 34-4. Yes, four.

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 his 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.

“That was like, ‘whoa,’” guard Hassan Diarra said.

UConn, which defeated fifth-seeded San Diego State by 30 points on Thursday, has raced to the Final Four with four victories by an average margin of 27.8 points. The Huskies’ 10 NCAA Tournament wins over the last two seasons have all come by double digits.

Illinois, with its high-powered offense, was thought to be one of the few teams that could pose a challenge to the UConn machine. And it appeared to catch the Huskies on an off day. Connecticut matched a season-low with three made 3-pointers and endured 1-of-12 shooting combined from guards Tristen Newton and Stephon Castle.

But the Huskies held Illini leading scorer Terrence Shannon Jr. to eight points on 2-of-12 shooting and kept the Illini off the scoreboard for the first four minutes of the first half and the first 7:19 of the second.

“When your defense is elite, which ours is, and your offense is elite, which ours is, and rebounding margins show that we’re an elite rebounding team and we generally play harder than our opponent, we share the ball and have depth with different people,” Hurley said. “Our first-team All-American point guard (Newton) didn’t make a field goal today, and we shot 3-for-17 from 3 and went on a 30-0 run. So the depth.

“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 a star like Tristan.”

Required reading

(Photo: Winslow Townson / USA Today)

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