Women’s basketball advances in WNIT with overtime win against Marquette

Monday was business as usual for Jenna Smith.

The Illini women’s basketball great began what could be her final game at the Assembly Hall shooting 6-for-6 from the field, before finishing with 29 points and 14 rebounds.

Smith also led her team to a 74-72 overtime victory over Marquette, lengthening her storied career in the process.

“It was just a great game and all of our teammates jumping up and smiling … and I was just happy to be there and just happy to see all the orange again,” Smith said.

But if Monday was a normal day for Smith, heading into halftime it was looking to be a microcosm of the Illini’s season as well.

In the first half, the Illini (18-14) exhibited the inconsistency that plagued them all season long, at times dictating on defense while otherwise rushing their offense and throwing the ball away.

Illinois commanded the game early and built up an 11-point lead with seven minutes remaining in the opening period.

During that stretch, the Illini gave up the ball just twice against a team that had scored 40 points off turnovers in its first-round WNIT game against Eastern Illinois.

But after achieving its 27-16 lead, the Illini had more turnovers (five) than points (four) in the remaining minutes of the half. Marquette rallied with a 15-4 run that gave the Golden Eagles a 32-31 advantage at the break.

“I just think that we started trying to make some passes that weren’t there … Once they started speeding their defense up a little bit, we started getting anxious and trying to make plays too fast,” Illinois head coach Jolette Law said.

However, the inconsistency mostly stayed isolated to that stretch in the first half, as Illinois came out in the second half once again with a confidence that senior Lacey Simpson said was absent when Illinois lost to Marquette earlier in the regular season.

“We just got this momentum (now) … I’m just really confident right now and my teammates are confident right now. In my eyes, that’s the biggest difference,” Simpson said.

Boasting solid play in the season finale against Northwestern and then again in the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois is riding a wave of confidence that its players hope will carry them through the WNIT.

After trailing by as many as eight points in the second half, the Illini rallied to take a lead with 10:15 remaining. The two teams played even from that point through the end of regulation.

With the score tied at 64, Illinois had the ball and an opportunity to avoid overtime in the game’s final 30 seconds, but Marquette knocked the ball out of bounds with four seconds remaining.

The Illini then turned the ball over with little over one second remaining in regulation. Marquette did not get a shot off before the game moved on to overtime, where Illinois never trailed.

Law expressed happiness with her team for taking charge in overtime.

“I knew what was going through my head, but I had five other coaches telling me, ‘Coach we got this, they’re not going to get the ball in,’” Law said.

Though not in the NCAA Tournament, Smith and Simpson can still end their career on a bang in the WNIT. And after another big performance Monday, Smith is still adding to her legacy.

“I just want people to remember me a hard-working post player that never gave up,” she said.