Wildcats fail to stop Smith

Jenna Smith’s leg is feeling better. After Thursday, the struggling Illinois women’s basketball team was feeling better as well.

At halftime of the Illini’s 81-50 rout of Northwestern, the Wildcats had scored 24 points. Smith had 28.

The Illini center opened the game shooting 11-for-11 from the field and 5-for-5 from 3-point range. She didn’t miss until 4:09 remained in the first half.

Smith, who will be remembered as one of Illinois’ all-time greats, had been limited to scoring in single-digits in five of Illinois’ last eight games. Illinois lost seven of those eight.

On Thursday, Smith was on fire.

“I don’t know what happened,” Smith said. “All my teammates were laughing like ‘What’d you eat before the game?’”

To the chagrin of Wildcats head coach Joe McKeown, many of Smith’s buckets came from wide-open looks.

“We knew she could shoot the ball outside,” McKeown said. “It would have helped if we had breathed at her a little bit in the first half. Or at least waved at her, maybe (sent) her a postcard or something, UPS. I don’t know.”

Smith’s career-high 34 points moved her into second on Illinois’ career scoring list with 1,988 points. She is now within 100 of Ashley Berggren’s 2,099.

Smith and Illinois came out of the gates firing on all cylinders on both ends. In the first half, Illinois shot 66.7 percent from the field and limited Northwestern to 28 percent shooting.

“Everything went right for Illinois in the first half, everything went wrong for Northwestern,” McKeown said. “It was a perfect storm.”

Illinois and Northwestern ended the game with 16 turnovers apiece, but Illinois scored 26 points off turnovers compared to Northwestern’s 11. The Illini also crashed the boards and capitalized off the fast break.

“When a team shoots the ball like that and gets out and guards us like that, just got to shake their hand and move on to the next game,” McKeown said.

Northwestern (14-10, 5-8) showed signs of life in the second half, but the Illini constantly had players step up to fend of the Wildcats.

Illini head coach Jolette Law said when the Wildcats began to pressure seniors Smith and Lacey Simpson, things opened up for “sharpshooter” Kersten Magrum, who finished with 11 points.

“Magrum I thought, when (Illinois) couldn’t score, she made big shots,” McKeown said.

Law said Illinois (13-11, 5-9) used its 20th straight win against the Wildcats as a statement to show they have not given up on their season.

“I just think that right now this team believes,” she said.