Illini women have lots to prove at the Big Ten Tournament

By Allyson Kloster

Well, this looks familiar.

A year ago, the Fighting Illini women’s basketball team walked into Indianapolis with the ninth seed in the Big Ten Tournament, ready to start a winning streak after finishing the regular season with a win.

This year, the Illini are experiencing deja vu. They defeated Minnesota on Sunday to grab the ninth seed, setting up a first-round battle with Penn State on Thursday.

But can the Illini fight off every team in its path on their way to a second-place finish as they did last year, proving to be better than they were ranked?

Unlike my unwavering confidence that the women could, and would, bring out the big guns during the tourney last year, this year my hope has been deflated.

For starters, compared to last year’s 16-13 (8-10 Big Ten) pre-tournament record, this season’s ninth seed comes in at 9-20 (5-13 Big Ten).

Although losing three more conference games than they did last year is not the end of the world, considering where the team was at the end of last season compared to where it is now, three games is huge.

At the 2008 Big Ten Tournament, Illinois finally learned how to consistently close out its games. That should’ve provided momentum going into this season, but the team pulled a Joaquin Phoenix by not showing up at its second, and final, game of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT).

Perhaps the team was thinking about how it should’ve been in the NCAA Tournament, rather than getting its heads in the game. It seemed as if the players had already hung up their jerseys, looking to the next season.

But when the next season came, instead of capitalizing on its tournament success, the Illini floundered back to the bottom of the Big Ten.

This didn’t have to happen.

After all, the Illini men’s basketball team pushed itself out of its slump last season to become nationally ranked this season. What triggered the success?

A second-place finish in last year’s Big Ten Tournament.

Sure, the women’s basketball team faced numerous hardships this season, including Illinois record-holder Lori Bjork graduating early and enrolling at Maryland for graduate school, using her final year of eligibility as a Terrapin. Freshman Chelsea Buher abruptly transfered schools and a shallow bench threw underclassmen into the fray without a chance to ease into their roles. Last year the Illini played as if they had something to prove.

But this year, since the Illini have the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation trickling down the pipeline and no seniors suiting up for a last hoorah this weekend (Chelsea Gordon is out with a torn ACL), it will be very tempting for the Orange and Blue to remain complacent during the tournament.

Will the Illini feel they have something to prove come Thursday, or will they turn their focus to next season?

With Jenna Smith and Lacey Simpson returning for their senior seasons and six nationally-recognized recruits leading the way next season, the Illini want the conference – and the country – to be ready for them.

But isn’t that what they said all throughout last season? Head coach Jolette Law and the team kept repeating how they were going to surprise a lot of people at the conference tournament, and that they’d be one of the best teams in the conference this season.

I believed it. Having followed the team throughout last season, I could sense it was going to do well. In fact, I believed it so much that I was one of the only people in the Illinois Basketball Band who packed a suitcase with enough clothes to last through Sunday’s title game.

But since Law and Co. kept the same refrain throughout this season (that they could beat any team, any time) only to repeatedly come up short, I think I’ll be packing lightly.

Allyson Kloster is a senior in Media. She can be reached at [email protected]