Illini women’s basketball prepares for Big Ten tourney in last games of season



By Stuart Lieberman

The last time the two teams met on Jan. 2, the Illini were 2-0 and tied for first place in the Big Ten. Now, when Penn State (13-13, 4-10 in Big Ten) comes to town on Thursday night, Illinois (14-11, 6-8) is in eighth place and looking to build momentum in hopes of extending its season.

The Illini have gone 4-8 since the loss to the Lady Lions, losing five of those games by five points or less. With four games left before the Big Ten Tournament, three will be in front of the home crowd.

“We know that these last four games count the most,” sophomore center Jenna Smith said. “Any night somebody can just go off, and that’s what’s crucial about our team. We just need to keep communicating and keep going to each other’s strengths. That’s what will help us win.”

When the Illini played at Penn State, they lost 49-48 after a controversial call to end the game. Illinois led by one with 9.9 seconds left, when Penn State’s Tyra Grant converted two free throws to give her team the lead. Senior guard Rebecca Harris then drove down the court to put in what she thought was the game-winning lay-up at the buzzer, but the officials called an offensive foul. Harris ran into Penn State’s Mashea Williams to get called for the charge and her basket did not count.

“Once we started getting ahead we kind of relaxed and we were overconfident,” Smith said about its early lead against Penn State. “But we didn’t keep building the lead.”

Meanwhile, junior guard Lori Bjork only needs to make one more three-point shot to break the Illinois career three-point field goals record. Bjork tied Krista Reinking’s record of 194 at Wisconsin on Feb. 14. Putting aside the feat before her, Bjork said the team needs to dictate throughout the entire game on Thursday, something they didn’t do last time around.

“You don’t want to continue to leave games up to the referees like we’ve done a couple of times here,” Bjork said. “We just got to take control and have ourselves determine the outcome of the game. When things are coming down the stretch we need to rely on ourselves to make stops and score baskets. We kind of waited until the very, very end to do that.”

For junior guard Chelsea Gordon and senior forward Audrey Tabon, this game has more meaning than just moving past the controversial loss. Both Gordon and Tabon hail from Pennsylvania and each attended high school with one of the Lady Lions starters. Gordon played with Mashea Williams at Mercyhurst Prep while Tabon went to Oakland Catholic High School with Brianne O’Rourke. Williams and O’Rourke are averaging 10.0 and 11.8 points per game this season, respectively.

Illinois hopes this time around it can pick up the win.

“I think for us it’s more a chance for us to pay them back for what happened last time around,” Bjork said.