MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Illinois hopes to continue 'fun' ride

Mar. 30—BOSTON — Whether it's a water gun fight in the locker room after a victory or a choreographed exit from a media conference, pushing their chairs back in place — this Illinois men's basketball team is having the times of their lives.

And Fighting Illini coach Brad Underwood — with or without a shirt — is enjoying the ride.

"If you knew the grief I caught from my two daughters (Ashley and Katie) last night," said Underwood, who removed his shirt for postgame water fight in the locker room. "I truly just wanted to be dry and have something to wear when I had to come meet with you all. But, no, we celebrate winning. We talk about winning a lot, and winning's really hard. We ask these guys to work their tails off ever day, it's our moniker — Every Day Guys.

"I don't want winning to ever, very just be a relief...I want them to enjoy the moment. For whatever it is, 30 minutes, whatever it is."

Obviously, winning three straight games in the NCAA Tournament and advancing to the school's first Elite Eight appearance since 2005 has been pretty special. Especially considering that the majority of this older Illinois roster was still in preschool 19 years ago.

"Part of this run is enjoying the moment. You've got to have fun," said Illinois graduate senior Marcus Domask, who was 4 year ago the last time Illinois played for a berth in the Final Four. "We play basketball to have fun. We love the game. So enjoy the moments and be locked in when we've got to be locked in."

That time for Illinois is 5:09 p.m. today when the third-seeded Fighting Illini face the top-seeded Connecticut Huskies for the East Regional championship. Connecticut has cruised through the first three rounds, beating Stetson, Northwestern and San Diego State by an average margin of 28.7 points.

"I haven't watched their tournament run very much. I've watched a lot of games. Honestly, I watched the exciting games but they've been blowing out teams, so I haven't really followed them much," said Domask.

But, he admitted on Friday that was going to change.

"We'll be watching a lot of film," Domask added. "We have already watched a lot of film, so we'll have a good understanding for what they do."

Underwood noted the Illini and the Huskies are actually somewhat similar.

"They punish you on the glass. We try to do the same thing. We try to make you hurt o the offensive glass," he said. "They run in transition. They get a ton of 3s in transition. We love to run in transition. We love to score in under seven seconds. So, it's some mirroring styles.

"I've got tremendous respect for how hard they play...they've got size, they play really fast and they play really hard."

Connecticut coach Danny Hurley specified the rebounding battle.

"It's going to be a bloody battle. It's a rebounding war," said Hurley, noting you have two of the toughest leagues in the Big East and Big Ten battling. "You get real men playing in these two conferences.

"So when the ball goes up, whoever's fastest to it, whoever makes that first violent contact and then continues to improve their position...I think it's going to be a fun game."

While Illinois is looking for its first trip to a Final Four since 2005, when the Fighting Illini took second to the North Carolina Tar Heels, Connecticut is looking for a back-to-back regional titles for the first time since 1999 and the Huskies are trying to be the first team since Florida in 2006 and 2007 to claim back-to-back NCAA titles.

"It's harder, it's way harder," said Hurley about getting to back-to-back Final Fours. "They players are more skilled. They are more versatile. So many different types of teams with different tactics offensively, defensively.

"I think we've made it look easy in these past two tournaments, but it's hard. We do the hard things really, really well, like the defense, the rebounding, the way that we play at the offensive end of the court."

And Connecticut's success is why most of the country has the Huskies has an 8.5-point favorite.

"I feel like there's, like, no pressure on us," said Illinois senior Coleman Hawkins. "We're going to prepare the same way. We're going to practice the same way. We're going to go about film the same way.

"So it's no pressure for us. I feel confident. I feel comfortable. Yeah, just feels like we got another game and we're grateful to be here."

What about another water gun fight?

"It's been a special ride and it's been a lot of fun so far," Domask said. "And we're not ready for it to end yet."

Tonight's game is set for a 5:09 p.m. tipoff at TD Garden in Boston. The game will be televised by TBS and TruTV, while it can be heard on the Illini Sports Network, including Danville stations WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.