Illini start above .500 in Big Ten play

By Wesley Deberry

She spent 11 games searching for it, but she finally found it. Illinois guard Lori Bjork discovered her stroke Dec. 19 against the Missouri Tigers, shooting 7-11 from the field for 14 points. She also had five rebounds, five assists and two steals to help propel the Illini to victory 65-45.

At the conclusion of the first half the Illini went into the locker room up 28-26. In the second half however, they managed an 11-2 run helping seal the victory. Illini center Jenna Smith had a double-double scoring 19 points and grabbing 16 rebounds.

“They tried to double Jenna in the first half, but we did a good job of spreading them out offensively so they had to go away from that,” Law said in a press release. “In the second half, Jenna got some more one-on-one isolations and took advantage.”

The victory against the Tigers pushed the Illini’s record to 8-3 heading into their Big Ten season opener against Northwestern.

It was smooth sailing for the Illini Dec. 27 in Evanston, Ill., after a late 16-0 scoring run, as they beat Northwestern 58-44. Bjork lead the way, scoring 13 points while Smith added 11 points for the Illini. Twenty-two points were scored off of turnovers by the Illinois. The victory over Northwestern marked the first Big Ten win for first-year head coach Jolette Law.

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She waited less than a week before gaining her second victory in conference play, as the Illini returned to Assembly Hall on Dec. 30 to face the Wisconsin Badgers.

Illinois jumped out to an early 14-7 lead after two three pointers from Bjork and never trailed in the game beating the Badgers 64-54.

Despite early foul trouble, Smith scored 16 points for the Illini and was a perfect 8-8 from the free throw line. Illini guard Lacey Simpson scored 10 points, and Chelsea Gordon helped the Illini on defense by holding preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Jolene Anderson to 10 points. Gordon had a career-high three blocked shots.

But the tide seemed to turn for the Illini in their next two games. On Jan. 2, the Fighting Illini found themselves in a fierce battle with Penn State.

As time expired, Illini guard Rebecca Harris made a lay-up which would have put the team up by one point. A controversial offensive foul was called on Harris and the Illini lost to Penn State 49-48.

Shooting percentages were not high for either team. Penn State was held to just 30 percent shooting, but Illinois did not fair much better as it shot just 32 percent.

“We were very impatient,” Law said. “We had open looks and lay-ups, but didn’t capitalize. We need to learn how to close-out close games, move on from this and be ready for Indiana.”

Things did not get much better for the Illini as the traveled to Bloomington, Ind., on Jan. 6 to face the Indiana Hoosiers. Illinois lost to Indiana 70-62. It was a back and forth battle throughout but a late 12-0 run by the Hoosiers was the difference in the game.

Smith and senior forward Danyel Crutcher dominated the paint for the Illini, outscoring Indiana 34-20.

With their Big Ten record even at 2-2, Illinois returned to Assembly Hall to face the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Smith and Harris combined for 43 points as they beat Minnesota 66-57.

The Illini will return to the court Thursday when they travel to Columbus, Ohio, to face No. 19 Ohio State at 7 p.m.