Column: Illinois holds off Iowa State to advance to Elite Eight. ‘We didn’t come here to win one game.’

BOSTON — They shot free throws like they were wearing blindfolds, and were forced to play without star Terrence Shannon Jr. for several key minutes during crunch time.

Whenever the Illinois men’s basketball team began to pull away, Iowa State crept back in. For anxiety-ridden Illini fans, it looked like a heartbreak in progress.

But somehow, someway, the third-seeded Illini managed to fend off No. 2 seed Iowa State 72-69 Thursday night at TD Garden to advance to an Elite Eight showdown on Saturday against defending champion UConn (5:09 p.m., TBS).

Survive and advance? More like escape by the skin of your teeth and advance.

“Illinois fans are always worried,” guard Marcus Domask said afterward. “We could be up 30 and they’re always going to be worried.”

Shannon’s steal and dunk with 26 seconds left turned out to be the fatal blow in a wild ending in Boston. Shannon led the Illini with 29 points, and they overcame an atrocious night at the free-throw line to advance to their first Elite Eight since 2005.

“We didn’t come here to win one game,” coach Brad Underwood said. “We came here to win two. To advance to the Elite Eight is special.”

Underwood said the Illini “missed 102 free throws” in the first half. In truth, they missed 14 of 29 free throw attempts on the night, keeping Iowa State in the game longer than necessary.

“It’s hard to win in most games shooting free throws like we did, and the amount of wide-open jump shots we missed were numbing,” Underwood said. “But we found a way with our defense. We were very resilient when Terrence was out. I never feel great when Terrence is out on the defensive side of things.”

Photos: Illinois beats Iowa State 72-69 in Sweet 16

Illinois was a combined 1-8 against top-2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament before Thursday, with its lone win coming in 1989 as the top seed over No. 2 seed Syracuse in the Midwest Regional final. Now they need to make it two straight, playing No. 1 UConn.

“It’s not necessarily we’re looking at them like ‘Man they’re good,'” guard Luke Goode said. “We’re just looking at it like an opportunity to play another game. That’s really what it is. They have a historical program. They’re coaching staff is obviously elite. They just came off a national championship.”

The Illini built a 13-point lead in the first half and led by 10 points at halftime. But after Iowa State crept to within four in the first five minutes of the second half, Shannon picked up his third foul. A breakaway slam by Coleman Hawkins and a 3-pointer by Marcus Domask gave them some breathing room and once again the Illini were up by nine.

But Shannon picked up his fourth foul and headed for the bench with 11:17 remaining, ensuring the rest of the cast would have to pick up the slack or their dream season would go up in smoke. They learned how to play together without Shannon when he was suspended for six games in December and January following his arrest in Kansas on a rape charge, and they would have to do it again.

Iowa State quickly pulled to within two and was seemingly about to pull even when Keshon Gilbert missed a layup. Dain Dainja, who played only three minutes in the first half, answered by muscling inside for a layup.

“That’s just a part of me, staying ready, not pouting, not getting down,” Dainja said. “When you have good energy, you can come in and perform how you want to, when you’re positive vibing it.”

The fight was on. It was a matter of who would blink last.

After Hawkins missed a pair of free throws, Iowa State missed another opportunity to tie, and Domask drove inside on a beautiful falling layup and converted a free throw with 5:38 left. Shannon re-entered the game as Underwood threw caution to the wind.

“You have to roll with your dudes,” he said.

The dudes abided.

Iowa State answered with a 3 from Curtis Jones, but Shannon calmly responded with a 3 from the right corner.

“To do that cold shows he stayed in the game mentally,” Underwood said.

Iowa State went inside for a bucket, but Goode answered with another 3 to make it 62-56.

The teams traded punches in the final minutes before Shannon split a pair of free throws and Curtis Jones’ layup cut the Illini lead to three at 67-64. Shannon split another pair of free throws before his steal off Milan Momcilovic and the ensuing slam iced the Cyclones for good.

“This team has got what I call swag,” Underwood said. “They don’t fear the moment. They don’t fear anything … They’re also old, so they’ve seen a lot.”

But wait. There was more.

A foul by Dainja on Jones’s 3-point attempt with nine seconds remaining led to three free throws that made it a one-possession game again. But Shannon went back to the line with 6 seconds remaining and hit both.

“The guys that were on the court had basically seen it all,” Goode said. “When you have that level of maturity and sense of almost (that) you’ve been there before.”

UConn, the top-seeded team in the tournament playing near their own backyard, cruised past San Diego State 82-52 in the night’s first game at the venue, and has won nine straight tournament games by an average of 22.8 points.

Related Articles

“We suck at winning close games,” UConn coach Dan Hurley cracked. “So you have to go with the alternative.”

UConn fans are so used to the dominance that at one point early in the second half, Hurley turned to the crowd and told them to get into the game, yelling: “Stand the (bleep) up.”

A win over UConn would send the Illini to the Final Four for the sixth time, after 1949, ’51, ’52, ’89 and 2005. Only Houston and Oklahoma (six apiece) have made more trips to the Final Four without winning a title.

Dainja said the win reminded him of his redshirt season at Baylor when they won the national title in 2021.

“It gives me the chills,” Dainja said. “I remember game by game when I was at Baylor and we won, and it feels the same.”

Hurley said UConn has “killer instincts,” as evidenced by their dominance in the tournament.

“Obviously we’re very comfortable in tournament play,” he said. “We’re hard to prepare for.”

The Illini have one day to prepare. And then it’s time to see if this team is for real.

“They have to guard us,” Underwood said. “We don’t back down from anybody.”