Big Ten women’s worst beats first

Ned Mulka The Daily Illini Lana Rukavina, 34, carries Lacey Simpson, 22, after the Illini defeated the Indiana Hoosiers 61-52 at Assembly Hall on Sunday, January 25th, 2008. The win was the Illini’s first against a Big Ten opponent this season.

By Anthony Zilis

As Jenna Smith waved her arms at the crowd, signaling the fans to rise to their feet, Lacey Simpson jumped up and down in the air with 30 seconds left in Sunday’s 61-52 victory against Indiana.

No, the women’s basketball team didn’t win a Big Ten Championship, though it may have felt like it after the Illini (5-16, 1-9 Big Ten) beat the first-place team in the Big Ten for their first win in conference play.

“We’re just all excited, I think at one point … we forgot what it feels like to win,” Smith said. “It’s a great atmosphere to be a part of right now.”

The game was by no means perfect for the Illini. They came up on the wrong end of 3-pointers made, offensive rebounds and turnovers but held the Big Ten’s highest scoring offense to 10 points less than its previous low.

With her team’s 20 offensive rebounds and 21 forced turnovers, it’s safe to say that Indiana coach Felisha Legette-Jack will save the scalding post-game speech for another day.

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“This is not a game that you’re mad at your players about,” Legette-Jack said. “Illinois’ a great team; no one came in here and took what belonged to them.”

But at the end of the day, the Illinois, shooting 46 percent, made shots and Indiana, at 29 percent, did not.

Ironically, though, it was a missed shot by Smith with 1:55 remaining and the Illini up 55-47 that gave head coach Jolette Law confidence that her team could finally notch a victory.

“Normally, our team would just get a little nervous, but (Smith) just said, ‘My bad, let’s get a stop,'” Law said. “Everybody said, ‘OK, let’s get this stop,’ and that let me know that my team, they’re growing up.”

Smith picked up her team with 24 points after Chelsea Gordon, the team’s lone senior, left the game after a hard foul late in the first half.

But it was the revival of freshman guard Macie Blinn, who stepped into the scorer’s role after playing only a combined 27 minutes in the previous two games, that made up for the loss of Gordon. Blinn scored 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting to help propel her team to victory.

“Not playing motivates me,” Blinn said. “In practice I have to show myself more. If I do well in practice, I’ll get the chance.”

Even after saying her team’s record didn’t add pressure and “a win is a win,” following the loss to Wisconsin Jan. 18, Smith’s post-game demeanor made it appear as if this win was a little sweeter than most.

“It gives us all the confidence in the world to know that we can beat anybody in the Big Ten,” Smith said. “If we just do the little things that we did tonight, play the team ball that we did tonight … we can beat anybody in the Big Ten.”