Illinois-Penn State rivalry to be

Ned Mulka The Daily Illini Illinois Jenna Smith (13) guards Penn States Julia Trogele (11) during the game at Assembly Hall, February 22, 2009. Coach Law removed Smith after her third foul with 5:16 left in the fourth quarter; the Illini fell to the Lady Lions 67-56.

Ned Mulka The Daily Illini Illinois’ Jenna Smith (13) guards Penn State’s Julia Trogele (11) during the game at Assembly Hall, February 22, 2009. Coach Law removed Smith after her third foul with 5:16 left in the fourth quarter; the Illini fell to the Lady Lions 67-56.

By Anthony Zilis

It may not have seemed significant or important, and it may not have mattered one bit.

But Illinois women’s basketball coach Jolette Law’s decision to remove Jenna Smith with 5:16 remaining in the second half of her team’s 67-56 loss to Penn State, with her team down four, was curious nonetheless.

Smith had just picked up her third foul, missed two free throws on the previous play and played the entire game up to that point. Under these circumstances, a break would be a given for most players on most teams.

“Going down the stretch, we were going to go inside to her a lot more, and I wanted to give her a break,” Law said. “I didn’t want her to worry about, ‘Oh, I can’t play good defense, I picked up three fouls.”

But Smith’s replacement was the seldom-used Lana Rukavina, who hadn’t played in the game. Law has shown throughout the season that she isn’t comfortable playing the freshman down the stretch and has pointed to Rukavina’s defensive shortcomings as an explanation for the lack of playing time.

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Although the Lady Lions’ lead only increased by two points in a 11-point win, the decision adds another “What if?” to a season full of questions.

Call it stubbornness or call it confidence, but Law doesn’t regret the move.

“Not at all,” she said. “Not at all.”

What goes boom?

With both teams fighting for seventh place in the Big Ten, Penn State and Illinois hardly make for the conference’s most gripping rivalry.

But the matchup may be one to keep an eye on in the future.

Each team has a junior in the top three in conference scoring, with Penn State’s Tyra Grant averaging 19.8 points per game, and Smith scoring 18.1.

Both Penn State coach Coquese Washington and Law are young, charismatic coaches known for their recruiting ability.

Each has proven that ability by bringing in top 2009 recruiting classes, with Penn State’s class ranked as high as No. 13 by ESPN’s HoopGurlz, and the Illini’s ranked as high as No. 3.

How does Washington feel about the future of the rivalry?

“We’re gonna be da bomb. D-A-B-O-M-B,” she said, spelling the words out for reporters. “I think this is going to be, in the years to come, one of the best rivalries in the Big Ten.”

Berggren honored

After playing for the Illini women’s basketball team from 1994-98, Ashley Berggren remains the school’s leader in points with 2,089.

She was Big Ten Player of the Year during the 1996-97 season when the Illini last won the conference championship and led Illinois to two straight Sweet 16 appearances in 1997 and 1998.

On Sunday, Illinois assured that Berggren will never be forgotten by Illini fans, raising her No. 32 jersey to the rafters.

Berggren is the first woman to receive the honor.

“I think that’s awesome,” Law said. “It’s great that she’s the first woman with all the guys. She was a great player … and her legacy lives on. Hopefully I have some young ladies that, they can raise their jerseys to be right there beside her.”

One current Illini whose jersey could end up right beside Berggren’s is Smith, as she is quickly cementing herself as a top player in Illini history.

“I’ve heard about her since I came here,” Smith said of Berggren. “To be the first one, that’s amazing. I just have so much respect for her.”