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Illinois’ Elite Eight run led by Terrence Shannon Jr., who faces rape charge, isn’t talking to media

BOSTON (AP) — Illinois’ season could have ended up a lot different.

The Illini opened the season thriving behind Terrence Shannon Jr., who established himself as one of the premier scorers in the nation.

And then they were thrust into uncertainty in December when Shannon was charged with rape or an alternative count of sexual battery from an incident that occurred in Kansas in September. A woman told police she was at a bar when a man she later identified as Shannon grabbed her buttocks and then reached under her skirt and touched her sexually. The woman said the bar was so crowded, she couldn’t move.

The charge led to Shannon being suspended for six games before a federal judge reinstated him, ruling his civil rights had been violated. Shannon’s attorneys have said he’s innocent. The fifth-year senior guard has been silent beyond that, not speaking to the media since, while steering his team within a win of the program’s first Final Four in 19 years.

It’s hard to imagine the Illini would have been so successful in March Madness without Shannon, who scored 29 points in their Sweet 16 victory over Iowa State on Thursday night. He is averaging 31.2 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. The Illini will play defending national champion UConn in the East Region final on Saturday.

Shannon, unlike any similar star player, did not do a television interview after Iowa State game, nor did he sit at the postgame dais alongside coach Brad Underwood and his teammates, who were asked about Shannon’s leadership and stellar play.

His silence and the looming criminal case have created a complicated situation for a fan base excited about the possibility of a national title. The same is true for Underwood and the rest of the Illini, who were asked again Friday to discuss the allegations.

“The season’s a roller coaster,” Underwood said. “It’s obviously Terrence’s situation. We’ve had injuries. We’ve played start of the year where (senior forward) Coleman (Hawkins) missed three or four games. You deal with illness. It’s a roller coaster that covers many months. This group’s maturity, their connectivity, I use that word a lot, has allowed us to be strong, grow stronger, persevere, come together more.”

How the criminal case will affect Shannon’s pro career also remains to be seen. The 6-foot-6 guard from Chicago has been projected as a possible NBA lottery pick, and U.S. District Judge Colleen Lawless cited the impact on Shannon’s future earnings as a reason to reinstate him.

Hawkins, Shannon’s roommate for the past two years, said he is trying to remain focused on basketball, but he acknowledged his concern about Shannon’s mental well-being.

“I think the biggest thing is … I think having an understanding of who he is as a person,” Hawkins said. “Terrence is a really great guy. He’s a really nice guy. Honestly, he’s pretty shy. And having an understanding of who he is has been a big help for me. Being a teammate first, rather than looking at him as someone that has something going on has been big.”

Hawkins has also made a point to separate Shannon’s off-the-court issues from other aspects of their relationship.

“I’m not going to say I support anything, or anything like that. I’m just going to say that understanding what’s best for our team, and when he wasn’t there stepping up — all the guys stepped up and did what’s best for our team,” Hawkins said. “And we knew everything would get handled with him. We were fortunate enough to get him back with us. I don’t try to go out of my way to ask him questions or anything, but just supporting him as a teammate. Elevating him, giving him the ball. Letting him know when he’s doing well. And just treating him as if he’s my teammate still. Not looking at him differently.”

Watching the Illini this week, they’ve seemed like any other team making a dream run through the March Madness bracket. The mood has remained light publicly as they’ve joked around during news conferences. After Thursday’s win over the Cyclones, they had a locker room water gun fight with a shirtless Underwood.

Players credited their coach for establishing a focused, yet loose atmosphere.

“Part of this run is enjoying the moment. You’ve got to have fun,” senior forward Marcus Domask said. “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.”

Yet the Illini understand Shannon is facing serious allegations. Underwood said he’s tried to focus on coaching the players who are allowed to play. And after the initial suspension, those include Shannon.

“It was a decision that was made by the university, and then obviously taken to the courts,” Underwood said. “And I’ve said all along I was going to coach the guys I had in the locker room.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

By KYLE HIGHTOWER
AP Sports Wrtier

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