Season ends for women’s basketball in WNIT quarterfinals

The Women’s National Invitation Tournament was a chance for the Illini women’s basketball team to salvage something from what had become a lost season.

Heading into Sunday’s contest against Illinois State in the quarterfinals of the WNIT, the Illini had a chance to win their 20th game of the season.

But after guard Katie Broadway hit a 3-pointer to put the Redbirds up two, 53-51, with 19 seconds remaining, a Lydia McCully shot fell short and Jenna Smith was unable to convert before the buzzer after grabbing an offensive rebound.

A season full of ups and downs and unpredictability finally ended for the Illini, and with it ended the careers of two of the most statistically prolific players in Illinois history in Smith and Lacey Simpson.

The Redbirds led throughout, and the Illini found themselves down 30-24 at the half.

“I think in the first half, we were playing sort of safe,” Illinois head coach Jolette Law said.

Illinois was forced into 20-of-54 shooting and continued its season-long struggles behind the arc, shooting only 4-of-13.

But even with their poor shooting, the Illini found themselves hanging with the Redbirds and finally took their first lead since just over four minutes into the second half when Smith, who had been contained for most of the game, hit a 3 to put the Illini up 51-50.

“We started playing our style of basketball in the second half. We started dictating on defense,” Law said. “We started applying pressure. In the second half, we started doing those things and we started going on a run.”

Smith was smothered by double teams all game — like almost every other game throughout the last two seasons — by the Illinois State defense.

“They really packed it in on me today,” she said.

“If I came off a screen, they switched. They just kind of cut me off and made everything.”

Smith shot only 4-for-11 on the day and was just 2-of-8 inside the arc.

With the Illini defeating Illinois State in November, nothing surprised Law about the Redbirds’ game plan. “They did everything we expected them to do,” she said.

Now, Simpson and Smith will have to watch any progression the Illini might make from afar.

With freshmen like Karisma Penn and Kersten Magrum emerging throughout the season, Simpson is sure the WNIT won’t be a regularity for the Illini in future seasons.

“I keep telling coach, this program is going to be one of the elite programs,” Simpson said. “This year, they’ve grown so much from the first game to now. I definitely think this year there are going to be great leaders on this team.”