April 15, 2024

After Dominating Illinois for a Trip to the Final Four, Can Anyone Stop UConn? | News, Scores, Highlights, Stats, and Rumors

Connecticut's Dan Hurley

Connecticut’s Dan HurleyMaddie Meyer/Getty Images

With the final game of the 2024 East Regional tied at 23-23 late in the first half, it looked like Illinois had cracked the code for slowing down the juggernaut of a reigning national champion more commonly referred to as the Connecticut Huskies.

The Illini’s size—all five starters stand 6’6″ or taller—was causing major problems for UConn’s guards and wings. Huskies starters not named Donovan Clingan were a combined 1-of-17 from the field for a grand total of six points, with Tristen Newton (at that point 0-of-6 from the field with one assist and one turnover) really having a brutal showing.

Two nights removed from watching both North Carolina and Arizona brick their way out of the tournament, UConn was on a similar trajectory in a physical game that figured to favor Illinois.

It sure seemed like if the Illini started making their layups and if Terrence Shannon Jr. got into one of those grooves he had been consistently finding over the past two months, they could be gearing up for a big run to upset the favorites to win it all.

That run never came, though.

Well, not for Illinois at any rate.

Instead, it was Connecticut that went on an unfathomable 30-0 surge, leaving us to wonder how in the world this team isn’t working on putting the finishing touches on a 40-0 campaign right now.

Not gonna lie, I’m still struggling to wrap my brain around that “triple kill shot.”

Evan Miya tracks 10-0 runs as “kill shots.” 30-0 runs don’t officially have a moniker yet, seeing as how they almost never happen.

That’s next to impossible to pull off even in a No. 1 vs. No. 16 first-round game, but UConn just did it in the Elite Eight. Against an Illinois offense that entered the night as one of the five most efficient offenses in KenPom history. Turning a nail-biter into a 53-23 laugher in the span of a little over eight minutes of game time.

And yet, in a way, not all that surprising from this UConn wagon, right?

Donovan Clingan

Donovan ClinganMaddie Meyer/Getty Images

For what it’s worth on that “How did this team possibly lose three games?” front, Creighton shot approximately one million percent from three-point range in Omaha in Connecticut’s only loss of the past three months. And in their two losses in December, the Huskies let a huge road win slip away in the final six minutes at Phog Allen Fieldhouse against what was an outstanding Kansas team at full strength, and they couldn’t recover from losing Clingan to a foot injury midway through their Big East opener against Seton Hall.

Aside from that, they’re undefeated, as it takes a Herculean effort by an opponent and/or some seriously extenuating circumstances to beat these guys.

That’s because they simply have too many options for beating you.

All season long, for National Player of the Year and All-American team purposes, it was a struggle to decide who UConn’s most valuable player actually is—and not for lack of options.

Clingan is an unstoppable force in the paint, which we knew long before he went for 22 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and three steals against the Illini.

Newton is a nightly threat for a triple-double.

Cam Spencer is one of the most efficient scorers we’ve seen in a long time.

Stephon Castle maybe would’ve won National Freshman of the Year if he hadn’t missed time early on with a knee injury.

Alex Karaban has scored 20-plus on eight occasions, and he sometimes gets forgotten about when talking about the many weapons on this loaded roster.

Having Hassan Diarra and Samson Johnson coming off the bench is just the whipped cream and cherry on an already unfair sundae.

The offense is historically efficient.

The defense is dadgum good, too, especially against teams who apparently think it’s a good idea to just keep driving straight at Clingan and living with the consequences.

The Huskies can destroy you on the glass, in the paint or from the perimeter on either end of the floor.

There’s a reason I had already decided in early January that I would be picking UConn to win the title if it was reasonably healthy heading into the Dance.

Now here the Huskies are, on their way back to the Final Four as the reigning champ, which hasn’t been done since Florida repeated in 2006-07.

Cam Spencer

Cam SpencerMichael Reaves/Getty Images

Not since the (in)famous Kentucky “platoons” team from nine years ago has a national championship felt this inevitable.

But before you go designing those “Back-to-Back Champs” T-shirts, let’s not forget how surprisingly evitable that Kentucky championship ended up being.

Despite winning their first 37 games by an average margin of 21.3 points—including literally doubling up West Virginia 78-39 in the Sweet 16—that Kentucky team just ran into a wall out of nowhere. It almost lost to Notre Dame in the Elite Eight, and then it did lose to Wisconsin in the Final Four.

It was a stark reminder that anything can happen in this tournament, which Connecticut had better keep in mind.

There’s still an extremely good Purdue team looming out there. Illinois had no answer for Clingan in the paint, but the Boilermakers sure do. And they can consistently drain the three-point attempts that the Illini were bricking all night in Boston. If that national championship pairing comes to fruition, it should be all sorts of awesome.

Alternatively, if Duke gets past NC State on Sunday and the Purdue/Tennessee winner in the Final Four, you just know the Blue Devils would love to pay UConn back for both the 1999 national championship and the 2004 Final Four showdown.

Of course, there’s also the West Regional champion to worry about before we start theorizing title-game matchups. Whether it’s Alabama or Clemson filling that spot, that team will be highly motivated to continue its momentum from the past two weeks and plant its flag as more than just a “football school.” The Crimson Tide could score enough to cause major problems for the Huskies, while the Tigers have the size in the paint and enough marquee wins at this point to not be taken for granted.

But that all feels like hot air, doesn’t it?

We all know anything can happen in sports, especially in this annually topsy-turvy tourney.

We also know what should happen after watching Connecticut plow through the past four rounds—and, really, the past four months—like a runaway freight train.

When both Baylor and Kansas went from “national champion” to “eliminated in the second round as a No. 1 seed” over the past few years, it began to feel like we legitimately might never see a repeat champion again in men’s college basketball.

At this point, though, a Connecticut loss next week in Phoenix would be even more shocking than what happened to that 38-1 Kentucky squad.

Kerry Miller covers men’s college basketball and Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter/X: @KerranceJames.