Women’s basketball advances to Big Ten Tournament finals

By Stuart Lieberman

INDIANAPOLIS – Never before has a seed lower than fifth made the finals of the women’s Big Ten Tournament. But Saturday, Illinois, a No. 9 seed, advanced to the finals for the program’s first time since 1999, beating Michigan State 55-41.

After upsetting eighth-seeded Wisconsin on Thursday and top seed Ohio State on Friday, the Illini stand just one game away from winning their first ever Big Ten Championship. The team will face the No. 3 seed Purdue in Sunday’s championship game at 4:30 p.m.

The first half of Saturday’s game consisted of strong defense and streaky shooting for both teams. Illinois opened up the game on a 9-2 run but the Spartans fought back to go on a 10-0 run of their own. Neither team was very efficient shooting and Michigan State went into the half up 19-15.

The Illini’s shooting woes continued into the beginning of the second half. But at about the nine-minute mark, Illinois’ Rebecca Harris grabbed a loose ball and ran down the court for a layup to give the Illini the momentum it needed and a 35-34 lead. It was all Illinois from there.

Sophomore center Jenna Smith stepped up to lead the Illini with 16 points and nine rebounds. Harris and junior guard Lori Bjork helped out Smith to seal a spot in the championship game. Bjork was second in scoring with 14 points, while Harris was third with 10 points.

If the Illini win Sunday, they will receive the Big Ten’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

“We felt like our goal at the beginning of the season was to make the NCAA tournament and we saw that slipping away and the only chance we had to get there was to win these four games,” Bjork said.

Law has been stressing all season that if the team goes out and plays 40 intense minutes, they will dictate their own fate.

“We know what we’ve done, but we wrote on the board 40 minutes, 2400 seconds left,” Smith said after win against Michigan State. “We know we have one more game. We know we didn’t come all this way just to lose this championship game.”