Red-hot Illini women’s basketball looks to extend winning streak to 8

Last season it would be difficult to find the Illinois women’s basketball team on the top of any NCAA statistical leaderboards.

But heading into Wednesday’s contest against the Marquette Golden Eagles, the Illini (7-1) are creeping onto the national scene.

“I just think that they’re starting to understand that we’re not the team of old,” head coach Jolette Law said of her players. “We’re not the team from last year. We are experienced … and these freshmen are hungry.”

Despite issues with inconsistency in the first half of games, the Illini are riding a seven-game winning streak into Wednesday thanks to remarkable defensive efforts.

Through Sunday, Illinois ranks fourth in the NCAA and first in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 31.5 percent shooting from the field.

The Illini also rank 15th in the NCAA in blocked shots per game with 5.8.

However, nearly all of Illinois’ best defensive efforts so far have been in the second half.

Last Wednesday, the Illini allowed Wake Forest to shoot 52 percent in the opening period before limiting them to 17.6 percent shooting in the second half.

Law’s preferred style of play this year is for defense to create offense, and so Illinois’ goal against Marquette will be to come out with intensity from the opening tip-off.

“They’re a great team, probably one of the better teams that we’re going to play this year, so we’ve just got to be prepared and be ready,” Law said.

On cold winter nights the Illinois locker room has become heated during halftime of the past few games.

“I know my team extremely well,” Law said. “They know how I am, you know, yelling and screaming. I don’t swear and all that, but I just kind of motivate them in a different way, challenge them in another way.”

Senior Jenna Smith said the team is embarrassed to trail at halftime and that it’s players’ pride that lifts the team in the second half.

“I think when we all get on each other in the locker room, talk about what we need to do, I think coming out in the second half we’re always better,” Smith said.

Sophomore guard Fabiola Josil said Marquette (5-2) gives the team some added motivation to come out strong from the start.

“I know two years ago Lacey (Simpson) and (Smith) lost to them in the NIT, so we’re definitely looking to have some revenge,” Josil said, referring to Illinois’ 72-64 loss to Marquette in the second round of the WNIT in 2008.

Both Simpson and Smith have their own places on the NCAA leaderboards heading into Wednesday’s contest, with Smith tied for the most double-doubles in the nation (6) and Simpson ranked fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.5).

Smith expressed happiness with how this season has gone thus far.

“Just to keep winning and playing together and playing Illinois basketball is always a positive, but to have a good winning streak and finally have one since I’ve been here is just great,” she said.

Josil added that she expects Illinois to battle down the stretch against the Golden Eagles — regardless of how the first half goes.

“That’s the new motto, ‘refuse to lose,’ she said. “We’ve got big goals for this season and we need to get the ‘Ws,’ so these gam=es are very important to us.”