Simpson sets school steals record as Illini advance to Big Ten quarterfinals

By Anthony Zilis

Jenna Smith showed she was the ultimate Illini defensive enforcer down low when she broke the Illinois women’s basketball block record Sunday at Minnesota.

Thursday against Penn State, forward Lacey Simpson showed she was the Illini’s all-time greatest in thievery, grabbing steal number 253 to nab the steals record previously held by Allison Curtis.

“That’s something I’ve had in my in my mind since I first came to Illinois, I’m going to break this record,” Simpson said. “Breaking it here in the Big Ten tournament, with fans, the team here, it’s very fulfilling.”

Both Simpson and Smith are only juniors, meaning they have another year to add to their eye-popping numbers.

“I’m proud of her because she works so hard for those steals,” Smith said. “It’s a great feeling to know that she can break a record, too, and be remembered for something she worked so hard for.”

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Can Toone crack the starting five?

In games this week against Minnesota and Penn State, Whitney Toone has come off the bench early for freshman guard Macie Blinn and has put up solid numbers, with 8.5 points and 5.5 rebounds.

But not everything she does necessarily shows up on the stat sheet.

“Whitney’s been playing with a sense of urgency as of late,” Illini head coach Jolette Law said. “She comes in the game and she’s like, Coach, whatever I need to do, I’m willing to do.”

Toone’s 34.5 minutes per game in the last two dwarf Blinn’s 7.5, making it seem a foregone conclusion that she’ll get the nod in the starting lineup.

Not necessarily.

“I don’t know, it’s a game-time decision,” Law said. “I’m looking at the chemistry on defense, who’s talking. Who’s the five unit working well on defense is probably going to start.”

It seemed the writing was on the wall, but a quiet Blinn said she had no idea who would get the nod.

She was, how, appreciative of Toone.

“She did a really good job, played good defense, she really stepped up,” Blinn said.

Start or no start, Toone isn’t complaining.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “When I go in, I’m going to play hard.”

Eat, sleep, and game plan

After Thursday’s game, the Illini have approximately 24 hours to prepare for their bout with No. 12 Ohio State, who’s beaten them twice this season, on Friday.

Luckily for Jenna Smith, she got a little extra time added to that, as Law took her out with 1:35 remaining.

“I told Eboni (Mitchell), ‘That sit down felt amazing,'” Smith said, as she iced her knees in the locker room.

They’ll be busy game planning for their quarterfinal matchup with the Buckeyes, but Lydia McCully had a very clear itinerary for her Thursday night.

“Eat, sleep, and just think about how, like they say, it’s hard to beat a team three times,” she said. “We’re definitely looking for revenge.”