Illinois first to defeat Michigan at home

By Wesley Deberry

For the second time in two games, Illini guard Lori Bjork shut the door on another Big Ten opponent. In Monday night’s game against the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor, Mich., with less than a minute left, Bjork found herself at the free-throw line. She converted both of her attempts, leaving the Wolverines with a two-possession deficit and little time as the Illini won 66-61.

The Illini are the first team this season to beat Michigan on its home court.

“We are starting to turn things around,” Illini head coach Jolette Law said. “Everyone is buying into the little things.”

It was a see-saw battle throughout for the Illini. At the half Illinois trailed 32-29. In the first half the Illini shot 38 percent from the field. But they made up for it on defense forcing nine turnovers. In the second half the Illini were able to increase their field-goal percentage to 46. At the conclusion of the game Illinois had only turned the ball over six times while forcing a total of 14 Michigan turnovers.

Illini guard Rebecca Harris led the way on defense with three steals while forward Lacey Simpson finished close behind with two.

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On the offensive side, four of the Illini starting five finished the game in double figures. Center Jenna Smith and Simpson led the way with 16 and 15 points, respectively. The offensive performance was a side of Simpson that Law hasn’t seen very often.

“I told Lacy to just play free,” Law said. Law added that she believed that because Simpson had been playing many different positions she was thinking too much. Simpson had been averaging 5.2 points on the year.

Bjork finished right behind Simpson and Smith with 14 points on 4-9 shooting. While Bjork’s biggest baskets of the game were her two late free-throw shots, she continued her long-distance relationship with the basket as all her points from the field came from three-point land.

Following the victory, Law was looking toward the rest the future with her squad.

“I’m so proud of my team right now,” Law said. “They’ve been through a lot of adversity this season and have come together. Hopefully we can keep the momentum going from our last two wins.”

Michigan’s leading point production came off the bench from Stephany Skrba with 14 points. Starting center Krista Phillips led all Michigan starters with 13 points. In the second half the Wolverines kept the game close due mostly to their success from three-point range, as they shot 50 percent from behind the arc.

After last Thursday’s victory against the then-No. 16 Ohio State, Law warned that her team would find itself in more close games and would be forced to execute. Just one game later her prophecy held true.

“I think we learned a lot from all the close games earlier in the season,” Law said. “We’ve made an effort in practice to put them in different end of game situations and I think that has helped us. When we get to the final two minutes now we call it the ‘Orange Zone,’ because it’s our time.”

The Illini will return to action on Thursday as they travel to Minnesota to face the Minnesota Golden Gophers at 7 p.m.