New women’s coach pushes veterans to new level

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Erica Magda

By Stuart Lieberman

Nineteen victories. A combined total of nine years of collegiate experience. A cumulative average of 49.3 points per game.

These are the numbers of last year’s starters for the Illini, all of whom are returning for the 2007-08 season.

Those starters will be joined by senior Audrey Tabon who returns from injury under new head coach Jolette Law as the team looks for a Big Ten title.

“All five starters – they want to win,” Law said. “We are working on executing, getting everybody involved. We are not just a one-person team. We have a lot of individuals that can score.”

Junior guard Lori Bjork returns as the team’s leading scorer, averaging 14.3 points per game last season and sinking an Illinois single-season record 84 three-pointers. She was named to both the preseason All-Big Ten Coaches and Media teams.

“If you had 12 Loris, you’d win a championship,” Law said in a press release. “I’m fortunate to have Lori on my team. She has a lot of big goals, and we’re going to make sure we’re behind her to help her reach those goals.”

Sophomore forward Jenna Smith, a member of the Big Ten All-Freshman Team last season, averaged 11.1 points and 7.8 rebounds.

“Jenna is great,” Law said on Sunday. “She can either shoot the three or she can put the ball down the floor, and she can also make that pass inside, too.”

Danyel Crutcher, a three-year starter, will join Smith in the frontcourt, where she averaged a career-high 8.9 points per game last season and pulled down a career-best 7.1 boards.

However, Law said she is going to experiment with her forwards in order to see who plays well together.

“Naturally, Jenna and Crutch have been playing together for so long,” Law said. “I’m just trying to get some other combinations. Down the stretch we have to play different people in different positions.”

Lacey Simpson will join Bjork in the backcourt, where her versatility looks to fit well with Law’s defensive philosophy, while Chelsea Gordon, who started every game for the team last year, will be depended upon to shut down the opposing team’s best guard.

Despite last year’s successes, though, the players are not automatic starters this season.

“They are definitely going to have to prove themselves,” Law said.

Meanwhile, Law said she is going to rely on Tabon just as much as everyone else.

“I’ve learned most of the players like getting the ball to her,” Law said. “I like the fact that Audrey runs the floor as fast as most guards. She gets the ball up and down.”

Tabon believes the team will be much better than last year simply due to conditioning. She said the players previously made mental errors as a result of fatigue, but this year they don’t have that factor because they are now used to conditioning for three hours a day.

“Intensity-wise it’s been a lot different,” she said. “You always hear coaches saying, ‘Take it to that level you don’t think you can go to.’ (Law) means it. She takes us there over and over again.”

The fans will have to wait to see if Law’s conditioning program has really taken an already experienced group of starters to that next level.