Law expects Illini to conquer Lions’ offense

Trevor Greene The Daily Illini Illinois Lacey Simpson (22) fights for the ball during the game against Michigan State in Assembly Hall on Feb. 5th. The Illini fell to the Spartans 50-63.

Trevor Greene The Daily Illini Illinois’ Lacey Simpson (22) fights for the ball during the game against Michigan State in Assembly Hall on Feb. 5th. The Illini fell to the Spartans 50-63.

By Anthony Zilis

Heading into its second straight Big Ten Tournament as the ninth seed, the Illinois women’s basketball team will try to do what it did last year – knock off the giants of the Big Ten and make a championship run.

At 9-20, the Illini need to emerge from Indianapolis victorious in order to secure a postseason bid. But for a team that just a few weeks ago was 0-9 in conference play, a Big Ten title may seem unlikely.

Just don’t tell Illini head coach Jolette Law.

“In March … you’ve got to be the best team on that day,” Law said. “All the stuff you did to prepare, like ‘Oh, I’m 19-0, or I’m 18-2,’ don’t nobody care about that in March. It’s one and done.”

The Illini face Penn State on Thursday afternoon in the first round and, should they win, 12th-ranked Ohio State will be waiting in the quarterfinals. With a combined record of 0-4 during the regular season against those squads, it would appear to be a tough road ahead for Illinois.

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Leave it to Law, who previously promised a national championship in her time at Illinois, to build lofty expectations for her team.

“We’re getting into the NCAAs the hard way,” she said. “If we win four games, we get an automatic bid, and that’ll be the Cinderella story of them all. We weren’t even invited. So let’s just go kick the door down, let’s just go.”

But before the Illini knock on any NCAA doors, they’ll have to deal with the Lady Lions.

Although Penn State (11-17, 6-12) comes into tournament play only one game ahead of the Illini in the conference standings, it was able to pull away from Illinois in the final minutes in two tightly-contested games this season.

Led by first team All-Big Ten guard Tyra Grant, who was second in the Big Ten with 19.7 points per game, Penn State fields a high-octane offense that is ranked fourth in the conference, averaging 64.7 points.

“Tyra Grant’s an amazing player, you can’t stop her,” said Illini center Jenna Smith, also an All-Big Ten first team member. “The biggest thing will be playing team defense and playing help side and helping each other.”

Even with those two close victories, Lady Lions head coach Coquese Washington refused to give the Illini any bulletin board material.

“I wouldn’t say that at all,” Washington said.

“It wasn’t like we blew them out both games. So it’s going to be a competitive game, and we’ve got to be ready to play.”

Mental edge or not, Illinois must be prepared for Penn State and its fast-paced offense if it wants any chance at the extended postseason that is on Law’s mind.

“I don’t like to lose. Period. But in March, no-no-no-no-no-no. You don’t lose in March. You lose and you go home,” she said.

“Where’s the Final Four at? That’s what I wanna know. Is it in St. Louis? Oh, OK. How do we get there? How many games ’til we get there.”

That quest for St. Louis would be eight games long, but it will begin Thursday at Conseco Fieldhouse.

“It’s forty minutes. Get this win, it’s forty more. Just four games, and we can go to the NCAA’s. Our season won’t be in vain,” Law said.