Law ready for Big Ten showdown

Lacey Simpson drives to the hoop in a game against Purdue, Sunday at Assembly Hall in Champaign. Erica Magda

Lacey Simpson drives to the hoop in a game against Purdue, Sunday at Assembly Hall in Champaign. Erica Magda

By Stuart Lieberman

Eleven Teams. Four days. Ten games. One winner.

At this point, the Illinois women’s basketball team needs to be the winner this weekend at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis if it wants to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The team’s only shot is to get the tournament’s automatic bid. That task may prove difficult as Illinois is ranked No. 9 in the conference and will require the team to win four games in a row starting with eighth-seeded Wisconsin in the tournament’s first round Thursday.

“We’re just going to treat it like it’s our home floor,” sophomore forward Lacey Simpson said. “I look at it as a challenge with the four games because no one else has done it. We try to look at it as a positive, like this is our fate. It’s supposed to be like this.”

Sophomore center Jenna Smith and junior guard Lori Bjork, who both received All-Big Ten nominations Monday, will have to push the team through the weekend with everything they have.

“We’ve preached being Big Ten champs in the tournament or in the season for so long, since we met Coach Law,” Smith said. “We want to send our seniors out with a bang. If we just play 40 intense minutes and play together like we did at Purdue and play a full game … that’s all we can do and I know we can do that.”

The Badger attack is led by senior guard Jolene Anderson, who was recently named Big Ten Player of the Year by the media. Anderson is Wisconsin’s all-time leading scorer with 2,267 points and is averaging 19.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game this season.

Simpson said junior Chelsea Gordon, who will be guarding Anderson, is not worried about it at all.

Wisconsin began the season 1-6 in conference play, but finished 8-3 to post a conference record of 9-9.

The two teams split their regular season series this year with each team winning on its home court. On Dec. 30, Illinois held Anderson to just 10 points on 4-of-20 shooting in a 64-54 victory against the Badgers. In the Feb. 14 rematch, Wisconsin defeated the Illini 66-64 after a controversial call ended the game. Guard Rebecca Harris drove into the lane as the clock wound down and appeared to draw a foul from Wisconsin’s Janese Banks. Instead, the senior was called for traveling as the clock expired.

The winner of Thursday’s match up will play Ohio State on Friday. The Buckeyes garnered the tournament’s No. 1 seed after finishing atop the conference at 13-5.

Illinois is 10-13 all-time in the tournament and has advanced to the quarterfinals each of the last three seasons. But the team has only made the championships game twice (1997 and 1999) and has never won the title.

“We’ve done a lot of ‘nevers’ since I’ve been here,” Law said. “In ten years, we haven’t beat Purdue here. We hadn’t upset Ohio State. We want to be the first team that goes four games in a row. In the back of my mind is our goal that we set back in May – to make it to the NCAA’s. We got to go four days consecutive to do it.”

As a first-year head coach in the Big Ten, Law said the pressure has been on her since day one. Law was an assistant coach for 12 years under C. Vivian Stringer at Rutgers, where she was used to contending in the postseason.

“I’ve been to the NCAA’s, that’s what I’m used to,” Law said. “I just want it so badly for this team because of all the hard work, all of the things we’ve been through. It’s my job just to continue to push and continue to build confidence.

“Nobody wants it as bad as this team right now.”

Law has seen a lot more energy this past week in practice, following the win against Purdue, than she had earlier during the season. She feels this is exactly what the team needs to pull out a few surprises this weekend.

“I know we can’t bet because it’s NCAA, but if I was out there betting, I’d bet on the Orange and Blue,” Law said.