Donovan Clingan and UConn have blazed a path to the Final Four that has been a March Madness run for the ages

With 1:49 left in the first half of NCAA Tournament East Region final, the Illinois Fighting Illini were in a tie game, approaching the halftime break, preparing for the 20 minutes of basketball that would determine the first entrant to the 2024 Final Four. They were exactly where they wanted to be. Except they were sharing a court with the Connecticut Huskies.

That is not a healthy endeavor.

Teams whose survival is dependent on winning their next game do not last long after encountering UConn. Six teams now have had their season ended by these Huskies, from the Big East Tournament (Xavier, St. John’s) to the NCAAs (Stetson, Northwestern, San Diego State and these stunned and staggering Illini).

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They are the authors of a Final Four run that ranks with the greatest we’ve ever seen. UNLV’s powerhouse 1991 team won its four games on the way to Indianapolis by an average of 17.5 points. The 1996 Kentucky Wildcats, the best team in the expanded bracket era, reached the Meadowlands by an average of 28.3 points. The 2023 NCAA champion Huskies put together quite a roll of their own, winning by 22.5 points.

These Huskies won their four games by an average of 27.8 points, their margin in the 77-52 victory Saturday over Illinois inhibited by coach Dan Hurley’s wise choice to withdraw his starters with more than four minutes remaining and use backups and walkons – including his son, Andrew – to close the game against the Illini regulars.

The true difference in the game, though, was 30 points: the 30 scored by UConn in the 9 minutes, 8 seconds that lapsed between Illini guard Marcus Domask’s bucket near the end of the first half and the layup by backup guard Justin Harmon that marked the team’s first score of the second half. The clock read 12:41 at that point. Illinois was down, 53-25.

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The 30-0 run was not an NCAA record. In 2020, Ohio U rang up 40 straight points on Cleveland State. It was not a UConn record. The Huskies’ program-changing 1990 team ran up 32 straight to open a non-conference game against New Hampshire. It might be a March Madness record. Nobody seemed to have a handle on that, because what are the odds anyone ever scored 30 straight on a team good enough to reach this stage?

“That’s one of the hardest teams to play in this tournament,” Hurley insisted, anyway, to Turner Sports. “They’re incredibly well coached, NBA players, and they came into this game really, really hot. But systematically, we were able to break them down.”

The Huskies now are two victories short of becoming the first repeat NCAA champion since Florida in 2006 and 2007, and only the eighth program to reach this extraordinary accomplishment.

UConn sophomore center Donovan Clingan, an essential reserve as the Huskies won the title last season, is making the run toward a second consecutive title his personal stage. He destroyed Illinois’ interior defense with 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds. He had a plus-29 rating in his 22 minutes. Deep into the game, the Illini had scored only four points with Clingan on the court.

Illinois made the curious decision to challenge Clingan by driving the lane and attempting to score through him. He blocked 5 shots, and they bricked 22 of their 30 layup attempts. That’s 26.7 percent accuracy, or 73.3 percent inaccuracy, depending on whose side you were on.

Illini coach Brad Underwood, for one of the few times all season, caught himself making a habitual decision rather than a strategic one that turned out to be costly. He started rugged guard Ty Rodgers as in the team’s other 37 games this season. It quickly became obvious the Illini could not afford his offensive limitations against the Huskies, and he was withdrawn in fewer than 4 minutes, with the Illini down 7-0.

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With the game still a battle at the half, UConn leading by 28-23, Underwood chose to open the second half with the same group. This time, Rodgers lasted fewer than 3 minutes, but the Huskies had extended the lead to double digits and never would look back. Rodgers, at that point, had a minus-13 rating in just 5 minutes of playing time.

“I didn’t expect that,” Underwood said afterward. “But tons of credit to UConn.

“I thought we were in a good spot at half, especially after the slow start. I thought Clingan dominated the first half with his defensive abilities. We obviously came out in the second half and got blitzed.”

Underwood said Illinois wouldn’t just “blow off” the success of getting to the Elite Eight, calling that “quite a successful season.”

If the game in this round had been against someone – anyone – other than UConn, there might have been more basketball still to play.

That’s not how the bracket broke, though.

Teams only can avoid these Huskies for so long.

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