Illini women begin NIT campaign

It was Monday evening, and Jolette Law knew her team might play Wednesday in the WNIT. Nevertheless, she knew there was something more important than practice going on.

Law took her entire team into the locker room, turned on the TV to ESPN and the team watched the NCAA tournament selection show — even though she knew her team wouldn’t make it.

She wanted to teach her team a point, show them what it would be like to make the tournament.

Law didn’t even have to say anything, the first No. 8 seed vs. No. 9 seed matchup said it all.

“The first teams to pop up were ‘bam,’ Iowa and Rutgers,” she said, of her alma mater (Iowa), and the school coached by her mentor, C. Vivian Stringer, where she coached for 12 years.

“As a player, that’s what I look for. As a coach, that’s what I was used to. It was just God showing a sign that, this is what Coach Law is always pushing and prodding for.”

Law knows her team wasn’t that far away. A Jenna Smith injury, a miss here or there, a few missed defensive assignments may have made all the difference. Iowa (19-13) and Rutgers (19-14) weren’t that far ahead of her team.

“Three games, you’re in. 19-11, 19-14, we’re right there,” she said. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is what we play for, this is what it’s all about.’”

But the Illini are on to the WNIT, finishing the season at 16-14, just a few games out in a season that seemed like it may have been lost long ago.

Smith knows she won’t be around to reap the benefits of any of these learning experiences.

The senior also knows, though, that there is only one way to look at the tournament.

“You just have to come in, like, ‘I just want to get better now.’ We’re in the NIT, we’re blessed to still be playing now,” she said. “That’s always your focus. Just to win and to get better.”

Illinois’ time in the WNIT, which begins Friday against Western Kentucky, is also an opportunity for Smith to break the Illini career scoring record ­— she’s only three points away — and for Smith and fellow senior Lacey Simpson to end their careers in good form.

“We want them to end on a high note,” freshman Kersten Magrum said. “It would be really special for them to either go really far in the NIT or win the whole thing.”

After the Illini’s quarterfinal loss, Law said she may not even accept an NIT bid if it weren’t for her two seniors.

She backed off that statement Wednesday.

“It’s really not for Jenna and Lacey,” she said. “I say that, but it’s more for my freshmen and sophomores, my young ball club. I don’t think they’re ready for it to end.”

Western Kentucky is a team going through turmoil, as it was announced Wednesday that two freshmen who average a combined 11.5 points will be leaving the team. The Lady Toppers are 21-10 and finished second in the Sun Belt Conference East Division.

Law knows, though, that the WNIT is not where her teams belong.

“I’m not comfortable sitting, not invited to the party,” she said. “Not playing for that big prize, that championship game. That’s why we work and sweat all preseason, that’s why we grind and compete every day.

“I’m hoping that next year they understand how hard you got to work, how hard you got to run, how much you got to work on your game. It ain’t just the 20 hours a week, they’re doing more, make sure everybody’s on page.”