Illini women’s basketball breaks slump behind big games from Smith, Simpson

The losing streak is over.

The Illinois women’s basketball team ended its slump on Sunday with a 61-48 victory at Minnesota — the last team Illinois defeated before dropping five consecutive games.

“Today was big not just because we won but because we showed that we’re still here and fighting for each other,” Illinois center Jenna Smith said.

After spending substantial time on the bench and never really finding a rhythm against Michigan on Thursday, seniors Smith and Lacey Simpson found themselves back in the starting lineup against Minnesota.

Both looked back to form, as Simpson had 15 points and eight assists while Smith’s 18 points kept her in good position to break Illinois’ career scoring record by the end of the season. She also hauled in 14 rebounds.

Illinois (12-9, 4-7 Big Ten) completed a season sweep of Minnesota, and Smith defeated her home school for the third time in a row.

“I definitely take a little extra pride when I come back and play in Minnesota,” Smith said. “I had lots of friends and family here, and you never want to lose in your hometown, especially with it being the last time I’m playing here.”

As the game progressed, it was defense that breathed new life into the Illini’s season.

Illinois came out of the break firing on all cylinders, opening the second half with a 17-0 run that gave the Illini a 13-point lead.

“I’ve never lost confidence in this team and at halftime I just challenged them and they responded,” Illinois head coach Jolette Law said. “We came out focused and dictated on defense to take control of the game.”

The first bucket for Minnesota in the second half came with 13:50 remaining in the game. The Golden Gophers were limited to 18 total points and 24-percent shooting from the field in the final 20 minutes.

Illinois never let Minnesota back in the game after its initial run. The closest the Gophers came was nine points, and Illinois expanded the lead to as many as 19 points.

The Illini could have built an even greater lead but were limited by 12-of-22 shooting from the free-throw line.

Minnesota (11-10, 4-6) shot 29.8 percent from the field and 6-of-19 from beyond the arc for the game. While each team turned the ball over 19 times, Illinois was able capitalize off its chances with 21 points off turnovers to Minnesota’s 10.

The Illini will hope to use Sunday’s win to turn their season around, as a high seed in the Big Ten Tournament is still up for grabs.

“If we keep playing together like we did today, I think we can still make some noise,” Smith said.

The top four teams in the Big Ten standings all lost on Sunday, and every Big Ten team has won at least four conference games. Despite being tied for last in the conference, the Illini sit just two games out of third place.