Illini improve offense, but fall to Buckeyes

By Bret Greenberg

The only time Buckeye fans booed at the Value City Arena on Thursday night was when their team failed to score 70 points, depriving them of free french fries after the game.

The Illini put forth a valiant effort against the second-best team in the Big Ten, but came out on the losing end for the second time in 11 days, losing 68-51 in Columbus, Ohio.

It was the second matchup of the year that saw a head-to-head battle between All-American talents Jenna Smith of Illinois and Jantel Lavender of No. 19 Ohio State.

Lavender got the best of Smith, finishing with a game-high 30 points and 12 rebounds in 31 minutes. She shot a productive 63 percent from the field.

“Jantel Lavender is not only one of the best players in the Big Ten, but in the country, and she showed it tonight,” head coach Jolette Law said. “When she’s in a groove like that, they’re tough to beat. Tonight we allowed her to get too deep in the post. Your only chance to contain Lavender is to push her out and make her hit jumpers.”

Smith extended her double-digit scoring streak to 20 games this season and 28 spanning two seasons. She finished with 19 points and five rebounds in 39 minutes.

Junior Lacey Simpson filled up the stat sheet for Illinois with six points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals. But it was not enough to notch the Illini’s first conference win.

The Illini have lost 10 straight but improved their offensive production from the last meeting when they recorded 35 points at the Assembly Hall – the fewest points since 1972.

The Illini did listen to parts of Law’s pregame advice, pushing the basketball on offense on several occasions. Also with less doubling in the post, Illinois got the ball down low to Smith with some consistency throughout the contest. But to reach her goal of finishing in the middle of the Big Ten pack, Law said her squad will need to play consistent hard-nosed defense.

“I was pleased with our transition and three-point defense,” Law said. “We played good defense for about 32 minutes tonight but couldn’t get the key stops when we needed them.”

With the sixth-toughest schedule in the nation, according to RealTimeRPI.com, games won’t be getting any easier. The Illini are back in action Jan. 25 when the No. 1 team in the Big Ten, Indiana, comes to town.