Pressure Point: Bjork key in two victories

Illinois guard Lori Bjork defends the net against Ohio State at Assembly Hall on Thursday. The Illini won 68-64. Erica Magda

Illinois guard Lori Bjork defends the net against Ohio State at Assembly Hall on Thursday. The Illini won 68-64. Erica Magda

By Wesley Deberry

Basketball is a team sport. Five players working in conjunction toward a common goal – winning. As time winds down and the margin for error becomes microscopic, select players get a chance to be the difference maker.

In her last two games, Illinois guard Lori Bjork has gotten such an opportunity. Against No. 19 Ohio State and Michigan, Bjork had the chance to shut out both opponents with last-minute free throws. All the sweat and sacrifice to keep the game close throughout, would all the effort be for naught? It was all up to her.

The game clock stands still as Bjork is given the ball at the free-throw line. She spins the ball letting it bounce off the floor, dribbles three times then spins the ball a final time in her hands. Finally, she aligns her left middle and index fingers up so the air hole of the basketball is in between.

Bjork said in pressure situations she “blanks out and goes with her instincts” as she lets the ball go. Her instincts haven’t failed her. In both games, Bjork sinks her two freebies to clinch two Big Ten victories for Illinois. For the Wolverines, it was their first home loss of the season.

Illinois head coach Jolette Law said she trusts the instincts of her junior guard, and not just at the free-throw line. With a simple look and the utterance of the word “state,” Bjork knows to break the press defense and get open for the inbounds pass.

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Though Law is very trustworthy of Bjork, she also looks at the statistical advantage of having her at the line in crunch time. On the season Bjork is shooting 90 percent from the charity stripe.

“I see consistency everyday in practice,” Law said. “It’s ice water in her veins.”

Bjork has seen both sides of the coin when having the responsibility of going to the foul line to finish a game.

In her high school days at Johnston High School, Bjork remembers missing a last-minute foul shot against Dowling Catholic. That night, she remembers feeling like the “worst basketball player in the history of the world.”

“Those are the things that you carry with you,” Bjork said. “Even though it’s a painful memory, it’s something that motivates you to get in the gym and not let it happen again.”

Often before practice Bjork can be seen inside Ubben Basketball Facility on the court shooting. She stands alone; just the rim and ball retriever accompany her.

Despite a slow start in the 2007-2008 season, Bjork’s extra effort has recently begun to pay off as she found her stroke from three-point range. Just eight three pointers separate Bjork from tying the Illini record for threes made in a career. Illinois basketball alumna Krista Reinking currently holds the record with 194.

Aside from having the career three-point field goals record in sight, Bjork also will soon become a member of the Illini 1,000 point club. She is currently just under 40 points shy with 963. Only 20 players in Illinois women’s basketball history are members of the club.

Bjork said it will be nice to leave behind a legacy at the University. However, she also said modestly, “I am not that great of a shooter.”

Ohio State and Michigan might beg to differ.