Illini pulls out nail-biter against UW-Milwaukee

Jenna Smith sets up a pick against a Bradley player at the basketball game that was held in The United Center on Saturday. Erica Magda

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Jenna Smith sets up a pick against a Bradley player at the basketball game that was held in The United Center on Saturday. Erica Magda

By Bret Greenberg

The Illini might get their shorts back after defeating the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee 63-61 after a nail-biting finish Wednesday night.

The win snapped a six-game losing streak that prompted head coach Jolette Law to forbid her squad from wearing University practice clothes.

“I think this win will help the girls see that if we do the little things and let the defense get things started for us, we can be a pretty good team,” Law said. “It was good to see the team pull together like that and pull out a win that we really needed.”

With 15 seconds to go and the game tied at 61, redshirt freshman Lydia McCully hit the go-ahead jumper, leaving three seconds on the clock for the Panthers’ offense to try and pull off an all-too-familiar game-winning shot at the buzzer.

But the Big Ten conference leader in steals, Lacey Simpson, came through again with her fifth steal of the game, as time expired. She added 12 points, six rebounds and five assists in 31 minutes.

“This one came down to the wire,” junior Jenna Smith said. “Lydia is great off the dribble and I am confident with the ball in her hands. They weren’t going to let me get the ball, but I know she has the confidence to take that shot in that situation and make it.”

The Illini had another infamously slow start, conceding a 10-2 run by the Panthers right from the tip. But Illinois responded with 21 straight points on their way to a 35-25 halftime lead.

Law’s squad had big contributions from their bench in the first half, gaining 12 points from freshmen Macie Blinn and Lana Rukavina combined. Blinn finished 3-of-5 from behind the arc.

Smith attacked the glass early on, collecting eight rebounds in the first half along with 10 points. Smith and senior Chelsea Gordon went the distance, playing 40 minutes a piece.

In the second half, the Illini didn’t let up, inflating the lead to 47-27 with 15 minutes to go. But Milwaukee fired back with a 30-10 run behind the play of center Traci Edwards who finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds.

Illinois finally got their turnovers under control against UW-Milwaukee, only giving the ball away 14 times all evening, two away from Law’s team goal of 12. Though they lost the rebounding battle, they finished ahead in assists, with 20.

With 10 days off for finals, the Illini will try to use the time to fine tune their defensive execution before their match up with No. 2 North Carolina on the road Dec. 20. McCully is positive about the team’s status.

“I think this was a huge win for us because it gives us confidence going into the break before UNC and the Big Ten season,” McCully said. “Playing another tight game and coming out on top this time should help us down the road.”