Women’s basketball set for NIT tournament

 

 

By Wesley Deberry

The status of their season was uncertain for the Illini after the last-second loss to Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament Championship. A win would have given the Illini an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

But Illini head coach Jolette Law still had the “faith of a mustard seed” that the NCAA gods would be kind to the Orange and Blue in the selection process.

Her hope of an NCAA bid did not come true, but the Illini were offered a spot in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT). Despite telling her team at the beginning of the season, “We will not play in the WNIT,” Law accepted the invitation.

“I welcome this opportunity because the WNIT is a great situation for us,” Law said. “My young ladies are still hungry, and we didn’t want to end our season as a loss.”

The Illini were awarded a bye to the second round of the tournament.

On Monday night at Assembly Hall at 7 p.m., the Illini will face the Drake University Bulldogs, who advanced to the second round of the WNIT after a second-half comeback win against University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

“It’s going to be a 40-minute game,” Law said. “We have to play each possession like it’s our last because it very well could be.”

Drake comes into the WNIT Tournament after tying for first place in the Missouri Valley Conference with Illinois State and Evansville.

All three teams finished with a conference record of 13-5.

Leading the charge in their first round match-up against Wisconsin-Green Bay was guard and first team Missouri Valley Conference selection Lindsay Whorton.

The senior led the team with 18 points.

“She’s their heart and soul,” Law said. “Everybody must ID where she is and defiantly keep her off balance.”

The Illini will look to keep Whorton off balance by changing defensive sets often and playing some “junk” defenses.

Illinois must also be aware of another scoring threat in senior forward and fellow first team MVC selection, Jill Martin.

Martin scored 15 points and snatched 16 rebounds for the Bulldogs in their first round win over Wisconsin-Green Bay.

To stop Martin, Law plans to have a rotation of at least three players guarding her throughout the game.

Illini center Jenna Smith will get the first crack at the challenge.

Forwards Lacey Simpson and Audrey Tabon will also get an opportunity to mix it up defensively against Martin.

“We are looking forward to a great game,” Illini guard Lori Bjork said.

“I think it will be tight all the way.”

The Illini hope to carry over some of the lessons learned at the Big Ten Tournament into the WNIT.

When it comes to success, Bjork said the Illini learned “what it looks like” and “what it feels like” from their run during the Big Ten Tournament.

The growth and late success of the Illini since the beginning of the regular season did not go unnoticed by Rutgers’ head coach C. Vivian Stringer, who Law both played for and coached under.

On March 16, Law and Stringer found time in their busy schedules to talk on the phone. Stringer told Law to “keep her head up” and continue to build a winning culture.

“These young ladies are now understanding what we have to do,” Law said. “We are going to try to get in here and win it.”