Tenacity, aggressiveness needed to curtail Purdue

By Brian Atlas

The Illinois women’s basketball team will enter Mackey Arena tonight to play the No. 13-ranked Purdue Boilermakers in hopes of rebounding from a frustrating defeat at the hands of the Michigan State Spartans. The Illini (16-6, 6-4) are in the midst of a three-game stretch against ranked opponents.

If Illinois struggles late in conference play, it will most likely not be invited to play in the NCAA tournament.

“Good or bad, it will all be determined in the next three weeks,” assistant coach Blaine Patterson said. “The best part of this team is that they’ve gotten to this point where they left us with the opportunity to get to the NCAA tournament in the last three weeks, and that’s not the case for a lot of teams.”

Purdue will be a difficult team to take down because it has hit its stride, winning 13 of its last 15 games. Purdue (20-4, 9-1) is 10-1 at home. Junior guard Rebecca Harris does not feel like Purdue has an advantage just because it is ranked.

“Although (Purdue) is ranked, some ranked teams go down,” Harris said. “That can be too much pressure for them to handle. Thinking of them as a ranked team really doesn’t do much for us … Having them ranked just makes it sweeter for us once we beat them.”

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Starting center Jenna Smith has a different motivation for the upcoming game. Smith said the loss against MSU was truly a tough one to take and the team will channel its frustration at the Boilermakers.

“We’re all intense,” Smith said. “We want to get these big games.”

In order to accomplish their goal, the Illini will have to minimize the production of the Boilmakers’ Katie Gearlds, who on Monday was named to the Mid-Season Wooden Award All-American Team. The list includes the top 20 players in the country and also factors in a team’s record.

“(Gearlds) is a phenomenal person and an even better player,” Patterson said. “The old saying, ‘You can’t stop her, but you can only hope to contain her’ (applies) to what you want to do. You have to mix it up (against her).”

Patterson noted that sophomore Chelsea Gordon’s smart defense and red-shirt freshman Lacey Simpson’s aggressiveness can make things difficult for Gearlds, who averages 16.7 points per game and who has drilled 55 three-pointers thus far.

Illinois’ own outside threat, Lori Bjork, will look to keep a three-point streak alive. The sophomore guard has the fourth-longest active streak (29 games) in the country for consecutive games with a three-pointer made.

Additionally, the Illini will watch for Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, who averages 14.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.

Illinois’ defense ranks second in the country in three-point field goal percentage allowed (.240) and is second in the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense overall. In practice on Monday, Illinois worked on “shooting on the gun” to emphasize shooting skills. A machine launched out basketballs at the players, who then had to catch the “pass” and then were expected to nail shots as quickly as possible.

With defense in mind and emphasizing certain offensive-skilled workouts in practice, Harris has high confidence for the remainder of the season.

“We can stick with the best of them,” she said.