Illini women WNIT bound

By Derek Barichello

The women’s basketball team cannot go to the big dance, so they are going to the house party instead and they are going to make the best of it.

That is what sophomore forward Erin Wigley’s father told her, and that is how the Illini are looking at the postseason.

The Illini found out late Sunday night that they will travel to Terre Haute, Ind., to take on Indiana State on Wednesday in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament. This marks the third time the Illini have qualified for the NIT and the eighth time in the last nine years the Illini have played in a postseason tournament. In their previous appearances in the NIT in 2001 and 2002, they finished 1-1.

With an RPI ranking of 98 and an under .500 finish in Big Ten play, the Illini had no hope of an NCAA Tournament berth, but were just happy to keep the season alive.

“We’re glad,” said junior guard Janelle Hughes. “It is not the NCAA Tournament, but it is another tournament to play in.”

In their last game played, the Illini took Michigan State to the brink, a team that received a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. With that game in mind, the Illini feel they have a lot to prove.

“If we do well, we can make a name for ourselves,” Hughes said. “There are some good teams in the NIT that should be in the NCAA Tournament. It would speak volumes for our team if we could win it.”

The Sycamores are one of those teams that could be in the NCAA Tournament. They come into the game 22-8, missing a tournament berth by a single point, when Illinois State defeated them in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship with a last second shot. With that said, the Sycamores have a lot to prove for themselves.

“They are a very aggressive team,” said head coach Theresa Grentz. “They are very disciplined. They play pressure defense, and they get to the free throw line an inordinate amount of time. They were eight tenths of a second away from going to the Tournament, so I’m sure they have something to prove.”

Illinois and Indiana State had three common opponents this season. Both teams played Illinois State, Indiana and Bradley. The Illini went 2-1 against the three, falling only to Bradley at the Assembly Hall 60-57. The Sycamores are 5-2 against the three, losing to Illinois State twice.

For the Illini to make a run in the tournament they will have to stay focused. In the game against Michigan State, the Illini felt one of the keys to their success was being on the same page.

“It will be easy if we play bad to just say, ‘Hey, it’s just the NIT,’ but we don’t want to do that,” Hughes said. “We want to keep our focus and play together. If we do that, I think we can go far in the tournament.”

The winner of tonight’s game will advance to the second round to play the winner of the Xavier-Western Kentucky game.