Illini fall to Gators’ bite

By Derek Barichello

It will go down as a loss in the standings for the Illini women’s basketball team, but Friday night’s game should only help its confidence.

The Illini (5-3) fell short 69-64 of upsetting Florida in Gainesville on Friday.

The Illini cut the Gators lead down to three with 58 seconds remaining on a Lori Bjork three-pointer after trailing by as many as 14 in the second half.

Unable to answer, the Gators missed a layup and a pair of free throws, and the Illini found themselves with the ball and 16 seconds left with a chance to tie.

Without point guard Maggie Acuna who fouled out on the previous play, senior guard Janelle Hughes brought the ball up the court and had her pass to freshman forward Danielle Gratton intercepted.

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The Gators then converted two free throws and sealed the win.

“This was a terrific game,” head coach Theresa Grentz said. “I think we fought hard and did what we needed to do to get back in it in the second half and I’m proud of our kids for that.”

Despite the turnover, Hughes led the way again in scoring with 18 points, and junior forward Audrey Tabon posted her second straight double-double scoring 13 points and grabbing 15 boards.

Junior forward Erin Wigley added 14 points, seven rebounds and three steals, and Gratton recorded six points along with five rebounds and three assists in a career-high 23 minutes.

The Illini put themselves in a hole early as the Gators jumped out to a 16-4 lead six minutes into the game off of five Illinois turnovers.

Illinois fought back with an 11-3 run and came within four at 19-15 halfway through the first half.

The Gators did not panic, lighting up the Illini’s zone defense with three-pointers to pull away and stretch the lead to 10 going into halftime.

At halftime, Grentz decided to switch the defensive scheme from a zone to person-to-person, a decision that would prove effective for the Illini.

“Florida shot well in the first half,” Grentz said. “We came out in a zone because they’re so athletic, but they got a bunch of open looks.”

With the new defensive scheme intact, the Illini came out of the gate firing with a 16-6 run capped off by a Hughes three-pointer, cutting the Florida lead to one.

“The switch to man-to-man defense in the second half caused them some trouble,” Grentz said.

Unfortunately, the one-point deficit would be the closest the Illini would come on the evening.

After the Illini run, both teams went scoreless for more than three minutes before the Gators pushed away with a 60-53 lead.

“We just couldn’t get the key buckets when we needed them,” Grentz said.

Before the turnover, Hughes managed to cut the lead to three with two free throws, but the Gators pushed it back to 65-59.

The Illini defense turned in another strong showing, holding Florida to 30.8 percent from the field in the second half, including 1-9 from beyond the arc, while the Illini hit 46 percent of their shots in the final half.

Florida’s top scorer Dalila Brooks was held down to only three points, 11 lower than her season average, but the Gators duo of Danielle Santos and Sarah Lowe stepped up in her place, contributing 18 and 11 points.

The Illini will take an eight-day break from games for final exams before returning to the court against No. 16 Oklahoma on Dec. 18 at Assembly Hall.