Paul Sullivan: Illinois soaks it in after an 89-63 rout of Duquesne puts them in the Sweet 16 for the 1st time since 2005

OMAHA, Neb. — Illinois decided not to toy with their fans’ emotions Saturday night in their second-round NCAA Tournament game against Duquesne at CHI Health Center.

A series of slow starts and double-digit deficits had everyone on edge since the start of the Big Ten Tournament last week, a problem that coach Brad Underwood and his players knew had to be rectified.

Junior guard Luke Goode even offered on Friday to give the pregame speech for Underwood, trying to do anything to shake things up. In the end, nothing really needed to be said.

The Illini knew what had to be done, and they came out on fire against an overmatched Duquesne team, quickly racing to a double-digit lead and cruising to an 89-63 win that sent them to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005.

They’ll face No. 2 seed Iowa State on Thursday in Boston for a chance to go to the Elite Eight. Backed by a large contingent of road-tripping fans, the Cyclones overcame an atrocious start to beat Washington State 67-56.

At long last, the Illini can ignore the talk about their early-round exits.

“It’s not about that, or me, or getting this off my back,” Underwood said. “You guys make that up. This is a completely different team. What I’m excited for is it’s been since 2005 this program hasn’t had that.”

Underwood celebrated with his coaches by blasting the players in the locker room with a super-soaker squirt gun.

“I had an unbelievable squirt gun,” he said. “Whatever those pump things are. I just made sure I didn’t shoot them in the heads. I was able to dish out a little punishment with that thing.”

Dishing out punishment was the theme of the night. Illinois never trailed, and by blowing Duquesne out of the water with a near-flawless first half, they were were able to go into “Showtime” mode in the second.

It wasn’t quite the 1989 Flyin’ Illini but was a reasonable facsimile. Veteran analyst Stephen Bardo, who played on that beloved Final Four team that lost to Michigan in the semifinals, said “when they play defense like that, they remind me a lot of us. I think they can do it.”

Underwood said this team, like Lou Henson’s ’89 squad led by Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill and Kenny Battle, was “built for the postseason.”

“When we guard like that, that’s what we can be,” he said. “We did a lot of that early in the year, defensively, and I thought we smothered the two little guys. We made it tough on Dae Dae (Grant). That gets us out and running.”

Terrence Shannon Jr. paced the Illini with 30 points on 10-of-14 shooting, nearly breaking Deron WIlliams’ Illini tournament record of 31 set in 2004 against Cincinnati. Underwood took Shannon out with just less than six minutes left after he flew into the bench for a loose ball.

Marcus Domask scored 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting, and Courtney Hawkins had 11, including three big 3-pointers. Dain Dainja remained perfect from the field in the tournament, going 4-for-4 after his 9-for-9 outing Thursday.

“When we step on teams early like that, I feel we’re unbeatable,” Dainja said.

Iowa State figures to be a much more difficult task than the one Illinois had in Omaha, where they trounced a No. 14 seed in Morehead State before knocking out the 11th-seeded Dukes. But that was not on their minds yet. It was time to relax and celebrate a perfect night.

Illinois, the No. 3 seed in the East Region, led 18-8 on a Dainja slam at the 13:19 mark of the opening half, then went on a shooting tear that put the game out of reach. Hawkins hit back-to-back 3s, followed by another 3 from Shannon. Hawkins made it four 3s in a row before a layin by Domask.

A 10-point lead suddenly blossomed to 21 before anyone across the country could switch channels to see whether a closer game was on. Meanwhile, Illini Nation breathed a collective sigh of relief, realizing this team would not fold under pressure like so many of its predecessors in the tournament.

Hawkins said he is “aware of the (school’s) history because it gets thrown in our face a little bit.” Dainja echoed that thought.

“I feel like sometimes people put the history, what happened years ago, on us,” he said. “There definitely is a lot of pressure on the team. But we’re not too concerned with the outside noise. We’re all here. We’re all together. This was definitely a big moment for us, a big moment for the whole university.

“But for us it was just a nice game.”

The Illini wound up shooting 59% from the field, including a variety of spectacular dunks. Shannon, Domask and Hawkins all scored in double figures in the first half as the Illini shot a sizzling 67%, including 46% (5-for-11) from 3-point range. The only suspense remaining was whether they would break the school’s all-time tournament scoring mark of 96, set against Northwestern State in 2001.

That record was safe when Underwood took out his remaining starters with three minutes left and an 86-61 lead. Then entire bench went wild when little-used reserve Max Williams hit a free throw in the final minute. There is no hierarchy here. Everyone treats each other like they’re the biggest star.

“He’s our brother,” Dainja said. “We support each other, we love each other and we’ll be the best teammate for each other, whoever subs in the game.”

Underwood was asked afterward about of two of his former players, Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, who put this program back on its feet after it was on life support for years. Neither made it past the second round.

“I hope they’re smiling, that they’re happy and proud,” Underwood said. “They built this thing. For those guys I’m disappointed we never got to move on. They deserved it.”

But this team finally got over the hump and has a chance to be remembered as one of the best in school history. But first they have to beat Iowa State and then three more for the first NCAA basketball title in school history.

“I think there is a whole other level of intensity that we can play with, both offensively and defensively,” Hawkins said.

If there is, Illini coaches had better keep those super-soakers locked and loaded.