Women’s basketball defeats Lehigh in first game back at State Farm Center

Guard+Cierra+Rice+sprints+up+the+court+during+the+game+against+Tennessee+State+at+Parkland+College+on+Tuesday%2C+Nov.+24.+Illinois+won+98-43.

Tyler Courtney | The Daily Illin

Guard Cierra Rice sprints up the court during the game against Tennessee State at Parkland College on Tuesday, Nov. 24. Illinois won 98-43.

By Hunter Warning, Staff writer

Despite its strong defensive play, Illinois found itself up by only three points at halftime against Lehigh on Sunday. Then, Kyley Simmons started to find a rhythm and finished the game with 21 points — all of which came from behind the arc.

The senior guard credited her teammates for getting her open looks late in the game.

“Chatrice (White) sets those awesome screens for me, and when you have a big girl that can set those screens and also be a threat inside and outside for you it just really opens up a lot more for me,” Simmons said. “I got in the gym, shot with coach after the Miami game and just believed.”

Illinois shot 45 percent from the field. White scored 17 points and freshman guard Cierra Rice added 12.

White said when Simmons starts to get going offensively, the team is affected on both sides of the court.

“It’s great for us in transitioning into defense and we’re ready to get a stop,” White said. ”(Then), we’re ready to get into it.”

On the other side of the ball, the Illini shut down Lehigh’s top scorer Lexi Martins, limiting her to three points in the first half and 14 overall on 4-of-11 shooting. Illinois head coach Matt Bollant said limiting Martins’ and Quinci Mann’s — another one of Lehigh’s top contributors — impact was key for his team.

“We knew those two post players were their leading scorers and they’re good players and they played like it today,” Bollant said of Martins and Mann. “They (combined for) 23 points and 28 rebounds.”

A big reason for Illinois’ defensive stand in the second half was the play of freshman Alex Wittinger, who finished with six rebounds and a career-best six blocks.

“I don’t think that they’ve seen any girls that can jump and grab the rim like Alex can,” Bollant said. “Her length and athleticism, I think, made a difference for us.”

The win was the program’s first win in the newly renovated State Farm Center — its first set of home games were played at Parkland College.

“I think they were kind of over excited, and think that kind of takes your energy. We didn’t quite seem to have the same life to start that game,” Bollant said. “I think the players love it. It’s just an adjustment coming back here after not being here. We only practiced here Friday and Saturday for the first time.”

Simmons’ seven 3-pointers tied a State Farm Center record set by Amber Moore in 2011.

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