Women’s basketball hopes to erase memory of last month’s loss to MSU

By Wesley Deberry

The last two minutes of every game are referred to as the “Orange Zone” by Illinois women’s basketball head coach Jolette Law, but the “Zone” has been anything but a friendly time for the Illini. The last two minutes may be better described as a black hole of disappointment, as six of the Illini’s nine conference losses have been by three points or less.

The Illini will hope to avoid another close loss when they face Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., on Thursday. It has only been a month since the Spartans beat Illinois at Assembly Hall in a tight battle, 65-62. A shot in the closing seconds by the Spartan’s 6-foot-9-inch center Allyssa DeHann put her team ahead for good.

Illini assistant coach Karen Middleton described this season’s close losses as “tough.” To Middleton, each game is a learning experience for the team, and in their last game against Michigan State the Illini learned the importance of executing down the stretch and finishing out a game.

On Michigan State’s game-winning possession in their last meeting against the Illini, DeHann missed on her first and second attempts from the field before making good on her third. She finished the game with nine rebounds, two of which came on the final Spartan possession.

In order to counter DeHann’s size, Middleton said she knows the Illini must beat her down the floor to prevent the center from getting the ball deep in the paint, and, on occasion, bring a double-team.

“I think we did a very good job last time until the last play of the game,” Middleton said.

Illini center Jenna Smith will look to return to normal form on Thursday, as her 28-game streak of scoring in double figures came to an end last Sunday in their last-second loss to Michigan. In her last meeting against the Spartans, Smith had a double-double with a team-high 18 points and 11 rebounds.

Middleton said Michigan State relied on zone defense. In order to stretch the zone and get open looks, Illinois will run in transition, penetrate to the basket and work the ball inside and out.

Despite a last-second miss in Sunday’s defeat, the Illini’s main outside shooting threat, Lori Bjork, has not lost her confidence.

“That shot was right in the center of the cup and it didn’t drop, so you can’t beat yourself up,” she said. “When you’re wide right or wide left, that is when you start thinking about what you’re doing technically.”

Sophomore forward Lacey Simpson admits she is not in the same offensive groove as Bjork, as her shot has “not been falling the way I want it to.” For the time being, Simpson looks to contribute in other ways such as aggressive defense and crashing the offensive and defensive boards.

On both ends of the court, each member of the Illini must fire on all cylinders Thursday as their remaining two games will decide their final seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Currently the Illini are seeded ninth in the conference.

“Anything can happen on any given night,” Middleton said. “We’re going to work hard to make a good run in the tournament.”