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    Monday, April 15, 2024

    UConn men carry an unwavering confidence into Elite Eight showdown with Illinois

    UConn guard Tristen Newton (2) and his teammates react in the final seconds of the second half of a second-round college basketball game against Northwestern in the NCAA Tournament, Sunday, March 24, 2024, in New York. UConn won 75-58. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
    UConn head coach Dan Hurley argues a call during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier in the quarterfinal round of the Big East Conference tournament, Thursday, March 14, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

    Boston — An unwavering confidence is fueling UConn’s deep NCAA tournament run.

    The Huskies have built up their confidence through hard work, preparation and faith in their talent.

    And, of course, being the reigning national champion and winning a school record tying 34 games raises their belief level even higher.

    “Confidence is key for us…,” veteran guard Tristen Newton said. “We just trust what we do, trust our work, trust the strategy that we have going into each game. It’s the work that we put in at the gym. Thirty four wins and three losses, you have a lot of confidence as well. Winning is a big part of it, too.”

    Top-seeded UConn will attempt to reach the Final Four for the second straight season on Saturday, needing to beat No. 3 Illinois (29-8) in East Region Elite Eight action at TD Garden. Game time is 6:09 p.m. (TBS).

    The Huskies have carved a path of destruction to reach this point, winning three tournament games by an impressive average of 28.7 points.

    Knocking off Illinois, which is blessed with talent, size and experience, will be difficult.

    Don’t expect another UConn authored blowout special.

    “Illinois is one of the best teams in the country,” coach Dan Hurley said Friday. “We expect a 40-minute war going into every game.”

    As a member of the Big Ten, Illinois played a challenging regular season schedule. It is riding a hot streak, winning seven straight including capturing the Big Ten tournament title.

    “UConn is terrific, and they’re right up there with the best teams we’ve played,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “But we’ve seen them all in the Big Ten as well, and we’re excited for the opportunity.”

    The two teams are similar in that they both operate two of the most explosive offenses in the country, so brace for a potential shootout. All-Big Ten first team performer Terrence Shannon, Jr., may be the best player that UConn will face this season. He’s averaging 31.2 points per game in the postseason.

    UConn and Illinois also both play a physical brand of basketball and relentlessly pound the boards for rebounds.

    “It’s going to be a bloody battle,” Hurley said. “It’s a rebounding war. … The Big East and The Big Ten are two of the toughest leagues in the country. You get real men playing in these two conferences.”

    Where the Huskies may have an edge is on the defensive end. They’ve held tournament opponents to less than 59 points in all three games.

    They also have an unwavering confidence on their side.

    They have players that thrived on the pressure-packed regional final stage last season. Illinois will be experiencing it for the first time since 2005.

    UConn expects to win on Saturday, but just not in blowout fashion.

    “I know they’re hungry to break through and get to a Final Four,” Hurley said of Illinois. “We’re hungry to get back to a Final Four. We’re two of the truly best teams in the country.”

    As far as pressure, you’d think it weigh on UConn given its status as the pre-NCAA tournament favorite to win it all.

    Plus, Illinois can embrace the underdog role.

    Veteran Hassan Diarra doesn’t see it that way.

    “We don’t look at anything as pressure,” Diarra said. “We just lock in and want to play our best basketball for a full 40 minutes. And we’re enjoying this. That’s the most important part, to enjoy this moment and go out and just perform. There’s no pressure.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

    UCONN vs ILLINOIS

    Game: NCAA tournament East Region final

    Location: TD Garden, Boston

    Tip time: 6:09 p.m. (TBS)

    Records: Top-seeded UConn 34-3, No. 3 Illinois 29-8

    Series: UConn leads, 2-1, winning last meeting 71-56 in 1994 in Hartford.

    Tournament path: UConn beat No. 16 Stetson, 91-52, No. 9 Northwestern, 75-58, No. 5 San Diego State, 82-52; Illinois defeated No. 14 Morehead St., 85-69, No. 11 Duquesne, 89-63, No. 2 Iowa State, 72-69

    Probable starters, UConn, 6-5 grad guard Tristen Newton (15.3 pts, 6.8 rebs, 6.2 assists), 6-4 grad guard Cam Spencer (14.5 pts, 4.5 rebs), 6-6 fr. guard Stephon Castle (10.9 pts, 4.6 rebs), 6-8 r-so. forward Alex Karaban (13.6 pts, 5.0 rebs), 7-2 so. center Donovan Clingan (12.6 pts, 7.4 rebs, 2.3 blks)

    Illinois, 6-6 so. guard Ty Rodgers, 6-6 sr. guard Terrence Shannon, Jr. (23.5 pts, 4.1 rebs), 6-6 grad guard Marcus Domask (15.8 pts, 5.1 rebs), 6-8 grad forward Quincy Guerrier (9.6 pts, 6.2 rebs), 6-10 sr. forward Coleman Hawkins (12.3 pts, 6.1 rebs)

    Noteworthy: UConn appearing in its 13th Elite Eight in program history, 2nd straight for the first time since 1998, 1999. Huskies are 6-6 in regional finals. Illinois making its fifth trip, first since 2005. … Fighting Illini are 0-5 all-time vs. NCAA No. 1 seeds. … Members of the Big Ten, the Fighting Illini went 14-6 in conference play. … Common foes: Marquette (Illinois lost 71-64, UConn won 81-53, 74-67, 73-57), Northwestern (UConn won 75-58, Illinois won 96-66, lost 96-91 OT), Indiana (UConn won 77-57, Illinois won 70-62). … Top reserves: 6-9 r-jr. forward Dainja Dain (6.3 pts, 3.7 rebs), 6-7 jr. forward Luke Goode (5.9 pts, 3.5 rebs). … Rebounding a strength for both teams: UConn holds over 8.8 edge over foes, Illinois 8.2. … Fighting Illini won the Big Ten tourney title, beating Wisconsin. … Shannon averaging 31.2 points in postseason, including Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. He holds the program’s single season record for scoring (728 points) and made free throws (217). … Hot: Huskies have won a program record and NCAA tying nine straight tournament games by double digits – an average of 22.8 points. … Cold: UConn’s three NCAA opponents scored an average of 54 pts per game. … Spencer and Newton only Huskies to score in double figures in all three tourney games, averaging 14.7 and 16.7, respectively. … UConn won 10 straight games, Illinois seven in a row. … Up next: Winner advances to the Final Four in Phoenix next weekend, facing the winner of the West Region.

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