Women’s basketball makes most of slow starts

For the third straight time, the Illini women’s basketball team used a late run to close out a come from behind victory.

Illinois topped Alabama 64-55 on Sunday to close action at the San Luis Obispo Holiday Beach Classic in California.

The Illini were trailing the Crimson Tide by 12 points at halftime.

During the opening period, the Illini turned the ball over 12 times while Lacey Simpson, Jenna Smith, Kersten Magrum and Adrienne Godbold each saw limited playing time after picking up two fouls.

“We had no energy in the first half,” Smith said. “Coach (Jolette) Law told us at halftime that if we made some things happen on defense we could get them rattled, and that’s what we did.”

The slow-starting first half maintained a trend the Illini have developed since kicking off a stretch of games on the road.

In the past three games, the Illini were trailing Illinois State 31-24, leading Cal Poly 23-22 and trailing Alabama 40-28 at halftime.

But the Illini responded in the second half in each of those contests, and on Sunday Illini went on a 30-6 run to end the matchup.

“In the second half we dictated on defense,” Law said. “We were talking more and pressuring the ball and that made the difference. Once we got some confidence and started getting Jenna Smith and Karisma Penn some looks, things started to snowball.”

Both Smith and Penn ended the game in double figures and finished the game, despite picking up four fouls apiece.

Smith led the Illini with 28 points and 17 rebounds, moving her even further up in Illinois’ record books.

She is now tied with Lynette Robinson for second on Illinois’ career double-doubles list.

She also now has the third most rebounds in Illinois history with 913.

“Jenna (Smith) played like an all-American today,” Law said. “She put the team on her back and carried us to a victory.”

Senior leadership was a key part of Illinois’ second-half play in each of its comeback wins during Thanksgiving break.

On Saturday, Simpson scored 15 points in the second half of Illinois’ 56-47 win over Cal Poly. Illinois closed out the game with a 12-0 run that began with 5:20 left.

But a senior with a less-pronounced stat line contributed Sunday.

“Whitney Toone is our spark off the bench,” Law said. “I told her to attack in the second half (against Alabama), and she was all over the floor, getting steals, creating fast breaks and hitting the offensive boards. She really gave us a boost, and the rest of the team fed off of that energy.”

Toone said she is proud of her role as the one to get the team energized when things aren’t going Illinois’ way.

“We were lacking intensity in the first half, so I took it as my job to go in and pick up our energy level in the second half,” Toone said. “I take pride in playing defense and getting steals because usually that leads to easy baskets on the other end.”

But Law said she hopes her entire team will exhibit energy in both the first and second half of games.

“I know that we can be a dangerous team when we play with a sense of urgency like we did in the second half today,” Law said. “I’m proud of my team for the way we battled back today, but we’re still working on putting it all together and playing a 40-minute game.”