Illini play to their strengths

By Stuart Lieberman

INDIANAPOLIS – All athletes have strengths and weaknesses. The question is: Do they take advantage of their strengths to overcome their weaknesses?

In this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament, each of Illinois’ five starters capitalized on her strengths to post a run to the championship game.

For star center Jenna Smith, her strengths are obvious – her presence in the post and scoring. Smith averaged 17.3 points in the tournament and 9.3 rebounds. Smith led the team in scoring against Wisconsin and Michigan State, with 21 and 16 points, respectively.

She also led her team in its championship fight with 19 points and 12 boards.

Junior forward Chelsea Gordon fulfilled her role by anchoring the defense.

During the tournament, Gordon led the team with five defensive rebounds against Michigan State and also with nine against Ohio State. Gordon and her teammates held Wisconsin to 26 percent shooting in the second half of its first-round win Thursday.

Gordon had the tough task of guarding Big Ten Player of the Year Jolene Anderson.

“Chelsea did a great job and I want to give my team credit,” Law said after the win against Wisconsin.

“I applaud them because even when she got stuck on screens there were times my post players were stepping up to help her. I’ve seen Jolene run through double screens and post up with other guards bumping into her.”

In the first three games of the tournament, sophomore forward Lacey Simpson couldn’t get the ball to go through the hoop like she wanted to but found other ways to contribute.

Simpson had the four steals against Michigan State and three against Ohio State and had six assists and five blocks against Wisconsin.

“If I can’t score, then I think of other ways to help my team,” Simpson said. “I think I’m a good rebounder and good defender, and I’ll do whatever to help my team.

“I hope I’m in my rhythm to score. (But) either way I’m going to get stuff done,” she added.

Although Simpson was not happy with her shot, her role as a utility player got the job done.

Law was content with Simpson grabbing loose balls, hustling and her vision on the court.

“Lacey wasn’t scoring tonight, she did the defense,” Law said after the win against Ohio State. “She got rebounds and did the little things like handling the ball and making key passes. Sometimes you might (not) make shots but you got to continue to play on both ends.”

But in the championship game against Purdue, everything clicked and Simpson’s shot finally fell. Simpson scored 11 points in the first half alone and 15 total in the game.

Junior guard Lori Bjork’s role of the three-point shooter was nothing new.

Bjork’s best performance from the three-point line came against Ohio State when she went 4-for-6 from behind the arc.

“She got hot and got some open looks and I think it was hers in the end,” the Buckeyes’ Marscilla Packer said.

Law said all along she knew she wanted Bjork to shoot whenever she had the chance.

“The rim was a little tight, so I was like the only person that I wanted to shoot the three was Lori,” Law said after the Ohio State game.

Smith only attempts three-pointers when she’s wide-open not wanting to invade Bjork’s territory.

“I’ll try and mimic Lori shooting, which is a horrible idea,” Smith said.

Senior Rebecca Harris provided an extra spark during the tournament, lighting up the court with her easy layups and quickness at the guard spot.

Harris led the team in scoring against Ohio State, shooting 8-for-17 from the field to put up 22 points.

“Something came over me,” Harris said after the win against the Buckeyes. “It was more my will than anything.”

She had 19 points against Wisconsin, 10 points against Michigan State, and 19 in the championship game.

“She’s been carrying them,” Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant said about Harris. “She’s been the difference-maker for them and makes them go. She is a senior who said she wasn’t going to lose. She’s taking her team to a place where she can hopefully continue their season.”

As a senior, Harris stepped up at just the right time, helping her team in every game in order to extend her career with Illinois.

“I know Rebecca Harris can get to the basket better than most people I know,” Law said about her senior guard.

With all of the starters except for Harris returning next season, the Illini’s strengths will only grow stronger.

“Obviously this is something to build on,” Bjork said about the team’s run.