Smith, Simpson get happy send-off with Senior Day win

Jenna Smith has the most starts in Illinois women’s basketball history, while Lacey Simpson has played in the most games.

On Sunday, the heralded duo and senior transfer Whitney Toone starred on Senior Day at the Assembly Hall in a 61-57 victory against Purdue in front of an announced crowd of 4,571.

For much of their tenure, Smith and Simpson have been the leaders of the team, with Smith frequently leading the charge on offense and Simpson serving as the Illini’s anchor on defense. The two certainly played those roles Sunday.

Smith finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds for her 47th career double-double — the most in Illini history. After Sunday’s contest, Smith now has school records in six statistical categories and is 54 points away from Ashley Berggren’s career scoring record of 2,089.

“She’s a senior that didn’t want to go away,” Purdue head coach Sharon Versyp said. “I have a lot of kudos for her. Her team really played well for the seniors, but she wasn’t going to be denied today.”

Simpson, a fifth-year senior, said her last game at the Assembly Hall was a blur.

“It went by so fast, the game just flew by me,” she said.

For both Simpson and Smith, a win against Purdue on Senior Day was particularly special. Neither has forgotten Purdue’s last-second shot in the Big Ten Tournament championship game that denied Illinois a trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2008.

But Simpson said she could only gain so much from Sunday’s win.

“I think I’ll feel better if we play them again in the tournament — maybe (in the) championship game,” Simpson said with a smile. “I mean, it helped a little bit, eased my mind a little bit.”

There was no buzzer-beater in Sunday’s game, as Purdue’s Brittany Rayburn missed a 3-pointer that would have tied the game at 59 with 16 seconds remaining. Smith then iced the game with a pair of free throws.

The Illini also held a 38-23 advantage in rebounds over the Boilermakers, who slipped into a third-place tie in the Big Ten with their 1-7 conference road record.

It was contributions from Illinois’ underclassmen in particular that touched Smith. The Illini benefited from strong play from freshmen Kersten Magrum (11 points) and Karisma Penn (14 points, five rebounds).

“Seeing the team and knowing that they really care about sending us off on a good note really meant a lot,” Smith said.

Whether the seniors can provide fans with an encore will depend on how far the Illini go in the Big Ten Tournament. A solid run could send Smith and Simpson to the WNIT, as it did in 2008, or even better — the NCAA Tournament.

“For me, personally, the records don’t mean that much to me,” Simpson said. “I really want, (in) our last season, to get to the NCAA Tournament. That would be the biggest gift that you can give me.”