New all-time blocks leader leads Illini in win over Gophers

The Big Ten season did not start like the women’s basketball team wanted, but the Illini certainly liked how it finished.

The Illini (9-20, 5-13 in Big Ten) beat Minnesota 61-50 on Sunday to close the regular season on a high note.

“I think Minnesota is an NCAA Tournament team,” Illinois head coach Jolette Law said.

“I was proud of the effort my team had today, pull off a win in a hostile environment.”

Jenna Smith once again led the Illini with 17 points and 14 rebounds, but a slow offensive start by Smith forced the Illini to lean on some unsung heroes.

Junior transfer Whitney Toone entered the game after Macie Blinn committed her second foul only two minutes into the game and had the game of her young Illini career with 13 points, including seven from the free throw line.

The Illini controlled the defensive end of the floor all game, holding the Gophers to 33.5 percent shooting and 3-of-21 from three-point range.

“Today was a total team effort,” Law said.

“Our defense dictated, leading to points on the other end, and we really focused hard on crashing the boards because we knew Minnesota is a physical team.”

Lacey Simpson, who had 14 points and seven rebounds, put the Illini up 10-8 with 14:16 remaining in the first half, and Illinois never relinquished the lead for the rest of the game.

Minnesota crept to within 38-32, but Toone single-handedly put together a 6-2 run to stretch the lead to 10.

Toone then passed the baton to Smith, who scored nine points in the final 7:53 to close out the game.

With her four blocks, Smith moved into first place on Illinois’ career blocks list on the last regular season game of her junior year.

“We’ve leaned on her all season, and she’s still been able to lead our team and put up her numbers each and every day,” Law said of Smith.

“I can’t say enough about what she means to this team.”

With the win, the Illini secured the No. 9 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, where they’ll try to repeat last season’s improbable championship game run.

Illinois will open up the tournament Thursday against No. 8 seed Penn State.

“This is huge because now we’re going to the Big Ten Tournament on a positive note,” Smith said.

“We know from last year that if we play like we’re capable of, like we did today, we can make another long run.”