Shallow bench once again hinders Illini women in 54-51 loss

By Anthony Zilis

Once again, the Illinois women’s basketball team showed how good they can be but also how much a lack of depth can hurt them, losing 54-51 to Penn State at University Park, Pa.

The Illini led by as many as 12 points in the second half and looked like the far superior team.

But just like in their 68-59 loss to No. 2 North Carolina last weekend, when the Illini relinquished an eight-point lead in the final fourteen minutes, Illinois ultimately ran out of gas.

“In the first half we did what we needed to do offensively and got good looks, but in the second half we became individuals,” head coach Jolette Law said.

After Penn State went ahead by three with only seconds left, the Illini had one final chance to tie in the form of an open Jenna Smith three-pointer. The shot clanked off the front of the rim, Lacey Simpson grabbed the rebound, dribbled out to beyond the arc and threw up a prayer, but it wasn’t answered.

“I got what I wanted on the last shot,” Law said. “Jenna popped off a screen out to the top of the key, and I’ll gamble on her shot everyday. I see it everyday in practice, and I’m confident she can knock it down.”

Smith, who last week was named to the Naismith Award Watch List, showed her All-American ability by scoring 23 points and grabbing 12 rebounds, and the Illini seemed to be able to feed her at will.

But it was the noticeable disappearance of another Illini star that hurt the team down the stretch.

Simpson had ten points with 19:10 remaining in the game, but didn’t score again while playing all 40 minutes. The junior forward finished with 12 rebounds and added to her conference lead with three steals, but it just wasn’t enough.

Penn State rode 21 points by Tyra Grant, who is second in the Big Ten in scoring.

The Lady Lions endured a scary moment with 7:00 to go in the second half when Grant, a 5-foot-11 guard, was toppled by Smith as she went for a rebound. But after a brief stint on the bench, Grant returned to help Penn State snap a 12-game conference losing streak.

But while Penn State celebrated, the Illini headed home feeling like one got away.

“We didn’t make the extra pass and execute our offense and that led to some critical turnovers down the stretch that Penn State capitalized on,” Law said.