Illini women’s basketball rallies for fourth straight comeback win

They did it again.

On Wednesday, the Illinois women’s basketball team dug itself a hole in the first half and trailed Wake Forest 33-17 at halftime. But just like in its previous three games, the Illini rallied in the second half, and put away the Lady Deacons 65-50.

“I’m so proud of my team right now,” Illinois head coach Jolette Law said. “I told them at halftime that they needed to fight to earn respect for themselves and for the Big Ten. We didn’t give up. We came out, and we dictated on defense in the second half and simply refused to lose.”

Heading into their part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the Illini were looking for a strong first-half performance after sluggish openings in their past three games.

But the team saw more of the same on Wednesday.

Wake Forest’s halftime lead of 16 points was nearly greater than the number of total points Illinois had scored, as 8-for-18 shooting yielded a season-low 17 points at halftime for Illinois.

“Everyone was really angry and embarrassed at halftime,” Jenna Smith said. “Before the coaches came into the locker room we all talked to each other about how we have to play together and buckle down on defense.”

As they had done three times before, the Illini increased their defensive intensity in the second half.

Wake Forest’s Brittany Waters hit a 3-pointer to put the Lady Deacons up 36-19 with 18:32 left in the game. But Wake Forest would only score two more points in the next 10 minutes, as Illinois went on a 20-2 run to lead 39-38 with 10:09 left in the game.

After allowing Wake Forest (6-1) to shoot 52 percent from the field in the first half, the Illini held them to just 17.6 percent in the second half.

“In the second half we were definitely more composed,” Law said. “Fabiola Josil did a great job staying calm and running the show, and Adrienne Godbold and Karisma Penn brought some great energy in the second half. Jenna (Smith) and Lacey (Simpson) were great as always, but the bench was huge tonight, as it has been all year.”

Smith led the Illini in scoring with 27 points, and just missed her 39th double-double after bringing down nine rebounds.

But the senior elaborated on Illinois’ (7-1) focus leading into Wednesday’s comeback win — the need to play a 40-minute game.

“We’re happy that we’re winning, but we know that we need to put it all together right from the tip to be successful all year,” Smith said. “We know that we can be unstoppable for a half, now we need to do it for a full 40 minutes.”

The win marked Illinois’ first ever victory in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, which the ACC leads 2-1 after day one.