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March Madness: Illinois fends off Iowa State in the second half to advance to Elite Eight

March Madness: Illinois fends off Iowa State in the second half to advance to Elite Eight

Illinois is in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2005 after beating Iowa State on Thursday night. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

No. 2 Illinois kept multiple Iowa State comeback attempts at bay in a 72-69 win over the No. 2 Cyclones Thursday night to advance to the Elite Eight.

Illinois had a 10-point halftime lead that Iowa State quickly cut into at the start of the second half. But Illinois stretched the lead back out to multiple possessions.

That cycle repeated itself for much of the second half, even as Illinois star Terrence Shannon Jr. spent nearly five minutes on the bench with four fouls. Not long after Shannon went to the bench with 11:17 to go after getting his fourth foul, Iowa State twice cut Illinois’ lead to two. But the Cyclones never got the game tied.

Shannon finished the game with 29 points and had a game-sealing dunk with 25 seconds left after he intercepted a pass with Illinois leading by four.

Illinois is a win away from the Final Four

Illinois will play defending national champion UConn on Saturday for the chance to advance to the Final Four out of the East region.

Illinois hasn’t been back to the Final Four since 2005 when it lost to North Carolina in the national title game. Heck, the Illini haven’t even been to the Elite Eight since then. In the 18 years since that Final Four appearance, Illinois has lost in the second round five times and been eliminated in the first round three times.

Thursday night’s Sweet 16 appearance was in danger of being a disappointment thanks to Illinois’ struggles at the free throw line. The Illini were just 15 of 29 at the stripe. That 10-point lead could have been 15 at halftime. Illinois missed nine free throws in the first half.

But as Illinois struggled at the line, it always came up with the big play when Iowa State got close in the second half. Coleman Hawkins had 12 points and hit a big 3-pointer early in the second half as Iowa State was threatening.

And with just over four minutes to go, it was Lance Goode's turn to hit a big 3-pointer.

But it was Shannon who was once again the star of the show for the Illini. The nation's third-leading scorer has scored at least 25 points in each of the last seven games. All seven of those games are Illinois wins.

That's no coincidence. Shannon is one of the best players in the country and a big reason why Illinois has an exceptional offense. Yet it took a restraining order for him to be on the court for the second half of the season.

Shannon was suspended in December after he was charged with rape for an alleged sexual assault in Lawrence, Kansas, in September.

After his suspension, Shannon filed for a temporary restraining order to stay on the court and force Illinois to reinstate him to the team. That restraining order was granted after Shannon missed six games. He returned to the basketball court on Jan. 21, two days after he was put back on the team.

Iowa State’s struggles at the rim

As Illinois had a hard time making free throws, Iowa State played like there was a lid on the basket in the paint. The Cyclones missed myriad shots at the rim and were just 17 of 45 from inside the arc.

The Cyclones also got off to a rough start. Illinois quickly jumped out to the lead to start the game as Iowa State’s Curtis Jones scored 11 of the team’s first 12 points. And he was on the bench to start the game. Jones finished with 26 points to lead the Cyclones, while Keshon Gilbert had 14.

Iowa State ends the season at 29-8 as the school is still searching for its second Final Four appearance and first since 1944. The Cyclones haven't been to an Elite Eight since 2000 and are now 0-4 in the Sweet 16 in the 24 years since.

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