Resurgence from Penn key to strong stretch by women’s basketball

After a strong performance against Indiana on Sunday, Illinois forward Karisma Penn was rewarded with Big Ten player of the Week honors. But it wasn’t the 25 points, seven rebounds, six blocks or six steals that impressed head coach Jolette Law most — it was the fact that those statistics came in 40 minutes.

“I told her, ‘Right now, I don’t care about the points, I don’t care about the rebounds. I need you 40 minutes,’” Law said. “She was like, going for blocks, picking up little silly fouls early, and it’s been putting her on the bench.”

Prior to logging 40 minutes in victories over No. 9 Ohio State and Indiana, Penn played just 14 minutes in a loss at Purdue due to early foul trouble.

“If you’re in the game 40 minutes, we’re gonna win,” Law told Penn. “She was concentrating so much before about getting the goals that I was setting, so I tried to release it from her. Just say ‘Just don’t get in foul trouble, 40 minutes,’ and she’s been responding.”

Even when Penn isn’t scoring, the defensive attention she demands creates opportunities for her teammates to produce offensively.

“Every game, there’s somebody different stepping up,” Penn said. “I think it’s really hard to defend that, and that’s why we’ve been on such a run right now. It doesn’t matter who scores the points, who gets the most rebounds or whatever as long as somebody is doing their job or somebody is stepping up to the plate.”

Law said regardless of Penn’s statistical goals, if the junior forward stays in the game for 40 minutes, points, rebounds and blocks will follow.

Penn and the Illini (10-16, 4-9 Big Ten) will look to win three straight games for the first time this season when they face Minnesota (13-14, 5-8) on Thursday in Minneapolis. The contest will be a rematch of the Illini’s 72-67 victory Jan. 2.

Both teams are coming off wins over top teams in the conference. Minnesota downed Nebraska on Sunday and the Illini defeated the then-No. 10 Buckeyes 66-65 last Thursday.

“We’re both fighting for position at this point and time,” Penn said. “We’re kind of neck and neck. It’s going to come down to whoever wants it more.”

Minnesota and Illinois sit among the bottom five teams in the conference, fighting for positioning in the final stretch of the season leading up to the Big Ten Tournament.

“No matter where we are going into the Big Ten Tournament, we all have the mindset of playing hard and getting the job done,” sophomore forward Alexis Burke said. “If we’re No. 1 or No. 11, I feel like as a team we’re going to play hard no matter what.”

Last season, the Illini became the first No. 11 seed to advance to the semifinals of the tournament. They hope to find similar success this year.

“For some reason we tend to show up like extra during the tournament time,” junior guard Adrienne GodBold said. “Hopefully we do the same thing this year. It’s really important for us, too, simply because we’ve been at the bottom of the conference since the beginning and we’re at the peak of our season.”