akoiki-passport2 – by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief

BOSTON — For the Illinois Fighting Illini to continue to dance in the NCAA Tournament, they had to do something they had been barely been accustomed to doing for the majority of the season: grind.

Grind through the foul trouble that cost it its star player for a crucial juncture of the game’s final 20 minutes. Tough out a horrific day at the free throw line that dooms most in the NCAA Tournament. Wallow in the mud with a opponent that wants to make games street fights, and did so again as it turned the latest reincarnation of the Flying Illini into something more as wrestlers during a steel cage match.

The Fighting Illini emphasized the “fight” part of its name on Thursday, the last team standing during a 72-69 slugfest of a victory over one of the hottest teams coming into the NCAA Tournament, No. 2 seed Iowa State, to advance to Saturday’s Elite 8 showdown against defending national champion Connecticut. The performance was a far cry from the ones that allowed Illinois to become the No. 1-rated offense in the country, though a trace of the team’s dogged effort on defense was present on the team at the very early in the season before the Illini’s offense found it’s groove.

“We were really good [defensively] early. We were quite literally struggling on the offensive end, and we flipped that script and had the No. 1 offense, and it became easy sometimes to outscore people,” said Illinois head coach Brad Underwood. “We have a saying in our program that offense wins games, defense wins championships, and these guys are all mature, old, they’ve been through it and understood. Tonight we did that, and we’ll have to continue to do that to keep playing.”

*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Thursday evening’s game, with photos taken by ALOST staff photographer Erica Denhoff. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 37 pictures in total.

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Tags : Big 12 ConferenceBig Ten ConferenceIllinois Fighting IlliniIowa State CyclonesNCAA Tournament

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