Simpson steps into scorer’s role as women’s basketball ekes out victory



By Anthony Zilis

The Illinois women’s basketball team beat Eastern Illinois 49-45 on Sunday and discovered a different go-to player in the process.

Junior Lacey Simpson came up huge for the Illini at Assembly Hall as the Panthers focused heavily on defending Illinois star center Jenna Smith. Eastern Illinois coach Brady Sallee was very clear about his team’s intention to lock down Smith.

“What’s the word when five people are on her?” Sallee said. “The game plan clearly was to take her out of it, and we did a very good job there.”

Smith scored a difficult 16 points, shooting only 5-of-12 from the field, and had five rebounds as she was double- and triple-teamed the entire game. But the real story of the game was the emergence of Simpson.

After committing two fouls in the first eight minutes of the game, when the Illini were down 9-7, Simpson was benched for the remainder of the half. The Illini made only two shots during the final 9:50 of the period, including a banked three-pointer by Lydia McCully, and were down 28-16 going to half.

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But Simpson came alive in the second half, finishing the game with 14 points, 11 rebounds and a steal, seeming like the only Illini who could create her own shot while also creating opportunities for her teammates.

“She can hit the three, she can put the ball on the floor, she’s a great entry passer, so with Lacey being out of the ballgame it was a little difficult,” Illini head coach Jolette Law said. “With a player like Lacey out on the perimeter it was really hard for them to sag and double down on Jenna.”

With opponents likely to continue to focus on Smith in the future, Simpson realizes it will become increasingly important that she stays out of foul trouble.

“I always start off too aggressive, I think. I just have to be smarter and realize that I can’t do that, I can’t put my team through that,” she said. “So I’ll just go into practice and work on my post defense, try to settle down a little bit.”

Another factor in the Panthers’ ability to put so much pressure on Smith was the Illini’s poor perimeter shooting. The team shot only 2-of-15 from three-point range and 31 percent overall.

But the Illini defense held its own, especially in the second half. They forced the Panthers into 13 second-half turnovers, as opposed to six in the first half.

But it didn’t take an inspired speech by Law to get her team going.

“I just gave them a couple of looks, and I think they know what those looks mean,” she said.

What did Law’s “looks” mean to Simpson?

“Oh,” she said, as if her coach’s halftime demeanor scared her, “I better take care of business.”