Women’s basketball looking to the future

By Dave Fultz

If the 2005-06 season for the Illinois women’s basketball team was billed as the “Season of Youth,” the 2006-07 season can surely be described as the “Season of Growth.” The six-member freshman class from last season was a year older and, along with the addition of a solid freshman center, helped to build a formidable foundation of young talent on which the Illini can rely deep into next season.

“I was most pleased with how they interacted with each other,” head coach Theresa Grentz said after the season. “The strong makings and foundation for a great team are there.”

The Illini finished the season with a 19-12 overall record and finished fourth in a Big Ten conference that saw seven of its 11 teams reach the postseason. Three teams in the Big Ten (Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State) were ranked for the majority of the season and competed in the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m most pleased with where we were able to finish in the Big Ten this season,” sophomore guard Lori Bjork said. “A lot of people didn’t pick us anywhere near that high, so that was an accomplishment within itself. We just have to build on that going into next season.”

After finishing with their best non-conference record ever and in the top half of the Big Ten, the Illini made their third straight appearance in the WNIT. They were one of the top-ranked teams and received a first-round bye to start the tournament. After an impressive win at Assembly Hall against Utah, the Illini were eliminated from the tournament in Manhattan, Kan., at the hands of the defending WNIT champions, the Kansas State Wildcats.

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    “(The WNIT) hasn’t been a tournament where a lot of teams have gone out and won on opposing floors,” Grentz said. “But we did some great things in that tournament. With such a young group playing in the WNIT late into March, we will become accustomed to playing into April and not finishing at the end of February.”

    The Illini will return all five of their starters next season and, with the exception of senior forward Erin Wigley, every bench player.

    “Erin has come full circle with us,” Grentz said. “I couldn’t be more pleased with her development. I’m proud of what she’s done and how she’s done it. She’s always taken each challenge, accepted it, and gave it her best shot. I have a great deal of respect for her and I know that she is going to do very well in the next phase of her life.”

    The team had two players, Bjork and freshman center Jenna Smith, named to All-Big Ten teams this season.

    Bjork, the team’s leading scorer, was honored as an All-Big Ten second team selection after she broke the UI single-season record for three-pointers with 84. Smith, the team’s lone freshman, was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team and was also an honorable mention All-Conference selection. Bjork and Smith will be joined next season by forwards Danyel Crutcher and Lacey Simpson, and guard Chelsea Gordon, all starters this year, on their quest for an NCAA Tournament berth. The starting lineup forms a solid young core with Crutcher being the only senior, Bjork and Gordon will be juniors, Simpson will be a redshirt sophomore and Smith will be a true sophomore.

    “I think that there is a great foundation for us to look forward to as we move forward into next year,” Grentz said.

    As the team heads into the offseason, Grentz knows just what her players need.

    “In consideration of all the time we’ve had together since last year, I will try to give them some space and give them some time to be themselves and do things away from basketball,” Grentz said. “Then, when they come back to me, they will come back strong and rejuvenated.”