Late lead slips away as Illini women fall to Gophers, 52-48

By Anthony Zilis

As 7,052 fans filtered into Assembly Hall on Saturday for a nationally-televised game, the Illinois women’s basketball team was determined not to disappoint its biggest crowd of the season.

But after leading for much of the game, the Illini were unable to hang on in a 52-48 loss to Minnesota.

“It just seemed like they were the sixth man,” Illini head coach Jolette Law said of the crowd. “Every time we got down, my kids were feeding off it. There was a great energy in the building.”

Illinois used the energy to start out on fire. A Macie Blinn 3-pointer and a Chelsea Gordon layup gave the Illini an eight-point lead late in the first half.

The Illini shot 49 percent from the field as they built a 41-35 lead with 7:18 remaining, and were able to contain Minnesota’s top-two scorers, Emily Fox and Katie Ohm, who were held to 7-22 shooting.

But Illinois eventually relinquished the lead as the Gophers rode 14 points by freshman Kiara Buford, eight of which came in the final seven minutes.

“You’ve got to give a lot of kudos to (Buford) for really stepping up and making shots,” Minnesota head coach Pam Borton said. “She was a difference down the stretch.”

The Illini faced season-low scoring efforts from star juniors Jenna Smith and Lacey Simpson, who finished with 11 and three points, respectively, but it was a different player who stood out for Illinois.

After struggling all season to find scorers beyond Simpson and Smith, Blinn emerged on Saturday. The freshman scored a career-high 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting and played with a confidence she has struggled to find all season.

“I think I can be that (third option), and I think basically anybody on this team can be that,” Blinn said. “Every night, it seems like someone can step up and do what’s necessary to win.”

But winning is something the Illini haven’t done much of lately, as they dropped their eleventh of 12 games and fell to 0-4 in Big Ten play.

And while the Illini would have liked to come out victorious, the impressive performance was a welcome sight for Law after her team’s 53-38 pounding at the hands of Wisconsin on Thursday.

“This is the team that I know,” Law said. “Win or lose, if they give the effort that they gave tonight, I’m satisfied. I want them to continue to compete, and compete to the bitter end.”