Alex Wittinger dominates in Illinois women’s basketball loss to Minnesota

By Matt Gertsmeier, Staff writer

The Illinois women’s basketball (8-12, 1-8) team’s 82-77 loss to Minnesota (14-6, 6-3) on Tuesday was a homecoming for Alex Wittinger, and somewhat of a breakout game. The freshman, who hails from Delano, Minnesota, finished with 27 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks in front of former schoolmates and friends at Williams Arena.

Delano is about 28 miles from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Wittinger’s Illini teammates donated their tickets to Tuesday’s game to her in order for her friends and family to attend.

Wittinger said she felt more energized than nervous to play in front of familiar faces.

“I was really pumped,” Wittinger said. “I knew a lot of people were coming from school, from old friends and I was just glad to be back here.”

Wittinger led the Illini in terms of points, rebounds, blocks and minutes. Center Chatrice White finished with 19 points and guard Kylee Simmons finished with 16.

Illinois dominated the first half of play. While Minnesota struggled from the field, shooting 33 percent in the first half, the Illini shot 49 percent. At halftime, Illinois held a commanding 45-29 lead and looked as if it was going to upset the fifth place Gophers and win its second conference game..

But, the Illini began to slip at the start of the second half. Illinois’ second half shooting percentage dropped to 39 percent and Minnesota’s Rachel Banham went on a tear.

Banham scored 18 of her 27 points in the fourth quarter and secured the win for the Gophers. Four other players on Minnesota scored in double figures.

Despite suffering its 11th loss in its last 12 games, Illinois head coach Matt Bollant said he was proud of his team’s effort.

“(I’m) proud of our team and it hurts,” Bollant said. “I feel like they’ve battled so many times and this is the fourth straight game we could have won and to go 1-3 hurts. They deserve to get rewarded and sometimes (in) life that doesn’t happen. They battled, and fought, and played their guts out, but Banham stepped up and made too many plays down the stretch.”

Tuesday’s game was also a much improved effort from Illinois’ last meeting with Minnesota. The Illini lost 106-75 on Jan. 7 at home. The Illini never held a lead during that game. Wittinger also only had 12 points and two rebounds in the team’s first meeting.

Since that game, Wittinger has been averaging about 14 points, eight rebounds, two rebounds and 34 minute a game.

Bollant acknowledged her breakout performance Tuesday night.

“She played a heck of game,” Bollant said. “She’s busts her butt everyday. She’s one of our hardest workers. (She) doesn’t look like a freshman the way she practices, (by) how hard she practices everyday.”

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