Simpson, Smith receiving more help from teammates this season

Had the Illinois women’s basketball team lost two players at the beginning of the 2008-09 season, head coach Jolette Law hardly would have been able to field a starting lineup.

Fortunately, the Illini began this season with 14 players, so the losses of freshmen Amber Moore and Destiny Williams won’t be as painful as they would have been last year.

Moore tore her ACL in an in a season-opening overtime loss against Temple, and Williams has taken an indefinite leave of absence from the team.

The Illini, though, seem to have all of the depth they need as they head into Thanksgiving break games against Bradley, Illinois State, Cal Poly and Alabama.

The emergence of sophomore shooting guard Macie Blinn, who shot 4-of-6 from the field in Wednesday’s blowout of Central Michigan, could nullify the loss of Moore.

Blinn showed flashes of brilliance last year during an inconsistent season when she started 18 games on a depleted Illini team.

“Macie always was a starter,” Law said of the guard, who didn’t play for the first 13 minutes of Wednesday’s game and hasn’t started a game this season.

“She’s earned it, I see it every day in practice. She’s been consistent. Whenever I call her name, she’s been ready. I have the utmost confidence In Macie. I see it every day.”

The loss of Williams opens up playing time for fellow freshman Karisma Penn. The Shaker Heights, Ohio, native was ranked the second-best forward in her recruiting class by ESPN’s HoopGurlz. Williams was ranked first.

Penn is averaging 15.3 points in the early going playing alongside Jenna Smith, who is a member of the Naismith Award Watch list. Her play has opened up possibilities for senior Lacey Simpson, who was forced to play forward for most of last season.

Athletic enough to dunk a volleyball but quick enough to be the career steals leader in Illinois history, Simpson can play almost any position on the floor.

Her 16 rebounds and 11 assists both led the Illini against the Chippewas, and only her 1-of-8 shooting for two points kept her from tallying the second triple-double in Illini history.

Simpson knows that elusive triple-double will come.

“I will get it one day,” she said.

Law upped the ante.

“If Lacey gets to stay focused, I’d love her to get five or six,” she said, adding that Simpson could average 15 steals a game if she were allowed 10 fouls.

With so much help, Simpson and Smith won’t have the burden of carrying the Illini like they did in 2008-09.

“Coach always says, ‘It doesn’t matter who scores as long as we get the ‘W,’” said Smith, who leads the team with 21.7 points per game and passed the 1,600 career-point mark Wednesday.

“I think that’s the most important thing with our team. It doesn’t matter who gets it, it doesn’t matter if I get it, I don’t care. As long as we get the ‘W’ and make it to the NCAAs we’ll be OK.”