Illini women’s basketball falls to No. 19 Nebraska after ‘sluggish’ start

The Illinois women’s basketball team may have been on the court in the first half against Nebraska on Sunday, but head coach Jolette Law didn’t recognize it.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Law said. “I’m like, ‘Who is this team?’”

The Illini (7-15, 1-8 Big Ten), coming off their first conference victory, a 71-62 overtime win against Michigan State on Thursday, lost 67-47 to No. 19 Nebraska (18-3, 7-2) in the Cornhuskers’ first visit to the Assembly Hall as a member of the Big Ten.

“This was a total different team than I saw on Thursday,” Law said. “We didn’t come out focused. We didn’t have the energy that we needed.”

The Illini struggled in the first half as the Cornhuskers jumped out to an 18-point advantage. Several Illinois players were again sidelined with early foul trouble. Five players were tagged with two personal fouls by halftime.

“It’s totally disappointing,” Law said. “It’s very unfair to me, you know, for them to get me all ready in thinking that I have a team that has finally gotten over the hump, to come in and don’t give the effort or don’t follow the game plan or don’t do all the little things.”

Illinois showed signs of life in the second half, twice cutting the deficit to nine, but Nebraska’s lead proved too much.

“Digging a hole is definitely something you don’t want to do,” senior guard Lydia McCully said. “It makes it that much harder to come back. If we would have even been tied going into the second half, it would have been a different ball game. But we start off slow, we start off sluggish, and it makes a difference in the game.”

Junior forward Karisma Penn wasn’t a factor in the game, as the Cornhuskers shut her down to the tune of three points, seven rebounds and five turnovers.

“I thought we did a pretty good job on her,” Nebraska head coach Connie Yori said. “She sees a lot of double-teams. We front her a little bit more than some teams have. We tried to make the entry passes difficult for Illinois, and I thought we did an OK job at that.”

Nebraska starters Lindsey Moore, Emily Cady and Jordan Hooper all turned in strong performances, combining for 49 of the Cornhuskers’ 67 points.

Freshman guard Ivory Crawford led Illinois with 12 points and 10 rebounds — her first career double-double — but also turned the ball over five times.

“She’s getting better,” said Law, who has yet to make this year’s freshmen available to the media. “We got to fine-tune her knowing how to make better decisions. I’m not really excusing her as being a freshman. I know she’s a freshman, but she’s a starter, so you gotta really do a better job taking care of the basketball.”

Illinois played in front of a 2,200-strong home crowd for Pack the Hall, but with the Illini trailing the entire game, the loudest cheers were for the cheerleaders tossing out free T-shirts.

“Seeing the orange, it’s a great feeling,” Law said. “That’s why I’m so disappointed in my team. We’ve finally got people coming out that want to cheer you on and want to be here to support you, and we don’t give the effort.”

Both teams struggled offensively, with Illinois shooting 29.3 percent from the field and Nebraska shooting 33.3 percent. The Cornhuskers struggled especially from 3-point range, where they lead the Big Ten with 485 attempts, going 4-for-20.

“Twenty, that’s nothing for us,” Yori joked while looking at the box score.

Illinois sophomore forward Kersten Magrum said the 20-point loss is tough to take, particularly coming off what the Illini hoped was their breakthrough win against Michigan State.

“It’s frustrating to see us come out in the game like that,” Magrum said. “We turned it around a little bit in the second half, so hopefully we can really just learn from this experience and move forward because if not, then this loss is kind of pointless.”