Women’s basketball coach puts focus on future games

Jolette Law knows what it feels like to have a team slide out of contention for a postseason berth and a Big Ten Championship.

Last year, her Illini women’s basketball team lost 16 of 17 early in the year on its way to a 10-21 season.

This year, with the same roster, along with the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class, things should have been different.

Alas, things lately have mirrored the struggles the Illini went through last year. Losing six of seven in the wake of bad shooting and inconsistent play, Illinois has dropped into sole possession of last place in the conference.

And for a coach that prides herself on being a great motivator, lack of energy and hard work have been all too commonplace topics of conversation recently.

Law, though, isn’t going to change her tune as the Illini prepare to play Northwestern at home on Thursday.

“I’m just going to continue to do what I do. Just drive them and work extremely hard,” she said. “The main thing is, just get the energy back and just do what we do.”

One thing the Illini didn’t experience last season was poor play by center Jenna Smith. Smith was consistent all season in 2008-09, starting all 31 games, averaging 18.5 points and 8.6 rebounds.

Although her numbers are up on the season, Smith is averaging just 11.8 points in her last eight games since straining her hamstring, which aggravated pain from her knee tendinitis, against Ohio State.

With Smith struggling, the emphasis in the offense has fallen on the guards, who took a season-high 28 3-pointers Sunday against Indiana, making only nine.

“We’re not a 3-point shooting team,” Law said. “We practice dribble-penetrating, getting into the gaps, those are things that we do well. We didn’t do those things, we reversed roles.”

Sophomore Macie Blinn, one of the team’s only dependable 3-point shooters, has struggled with an Achilles injury and has played limited minutes.

Lacey Simpson has stepped up her 3-point shooting and contributed offensively since sitting out the first half against Michigan. After shooting just 21 percent from behind the arc in 2008-09, she has shot 39 percent this season, 6 percent higher than any of her teammates.

“The last few games I’ve changed my whole mentality,” Simpson said. “Coach said I need to score. If I get a shot, I take it.”

As for the team’s lack of work ethic, Simpson said she takes “full responsibility” during her senior season.

“You can’t look back now, you can’t change what’s happened,” Smith said. All we have left is five games to play as hard as we can.”

Law, though, said she’s taking the pressure off of her seniors and wants herself and her coaching staff to be the only leaders of the team as it hits the stretch run.

“My duty as a coach is to continue to show them where we had open looks, where things were,” she said. “We just have to play together as a team.”