Five games to look forward to for new-look Illini women’s basketball team

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The Daily Illini File Photo

The women’s basketball team huddles up before their game against Nebraska on Jan. 25. With the schedule being released, there are several games you do not want to miss.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

One could say the 2021 season ended on a high note for the Illinois women’s basketball team, but only after considering the context. 

After suffering through separate ten- and six-game losing streaks, the Illini won their final game at home against Minnesota and defeated Wisconsin in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Despite a blowout loss in round two, the Illini had some momentum going into the summer.

But, the Illini took a serious blow to their roster over the summer, as Kennedi Myles, Jeanae Terry, J-Naya Ephraim and Aaliyah McQueen all announced their decisions to transfer. Myles, Terry and Ephraim were starters last season.

This season will be about growth. Fans shouldn’t expect major improvements considering the loss of talent, but watching the season play out could still be very exciting. The Illini’s leading scorer, junior Jada Peebles, is still on the roster, along with sophomore Aliyah Nye, who impressed during her freshman season. The Illini also added a four-star recruit in Adalia McKenzie, who some believe was one of the top 50 recruits in the nation.

As a conference, the Big Ten was strong last year, fielding five teams in the top 25, though that number could increase this year. This means plenty of talent will make its way through State Farm Center this year. Here’s the five games you won’t want to miss this season.

5. Florida State – Dec. 2 (State Farm Center)

The Illini face off against Florida State in the Big Ten/ACC challenge early in the season. The Seminoles are coming off of a less-than-glamorous season in which they lost in the first round of both the ACC and NCAA tournaments. Making the tournament is no small feat, as it’s more than the Illini were able to accomplish last season.

The Seminoles are likely to improve their record, considering they’ve retained all of last year’s starters and most of their reserves. They were formidable last year without head coach Sue Semrau, who took a leave of absence last year for personal reasons. They should see even more success this year.

The Seminoles’ top two scorers, Bianca Jackson and Morgan Jones, averaged more points per game than anyone on the Illini. They certainly have offensive talent, and like the Illini, most of it comes at the guard positions. This will be a tough but telling early season matchup for the Illini.

4. Michigan – Feb. 3 (State Farm Center) 

This rivalry hasn’t been very competitive very recently, but the feelings are still there. Illinois played Michigan just once last year after their first meeting was canceled. That game ended in a 20-point blowout win, and in the mean time, the Wolverines have improved. 

Reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon enters her senior year after averaging a ridiculous 24 points and 11 rebounds a game last season. While Hillmon does most of her scoring in the post, fellow senior Leigha Brown scores more from the perimeter, averaging 18 points per game. These two give the Wolverines a scary inside-out duo that the entire country has struggled to contain.

Michigan is certainly a better team this year, but a win for the Illini is not completely out of the picture, though unlikely. While we can hope for a competitive game, that’s not why I would look forward to this one. Instead, I’m looking forward to watching the best player in the conference do her thing in Champaign in the only chance we’ll get to see her this season.

3. Iowa – Jan. 2 (Hawkeye Center)

The Hawkeyes are led by start point guard Caitlin Clark, who led the NCAA in scoring last year as a freshman. Clark averaged 26 points and seven assists per game on a team of mostly upperclassmen. Additionally, Iowa retains all of its starters and significant contributors this season.

In a down year for the Illini, it seems like the rest of the Big Ten is only improving. That’s the curse of being in a competitive conference. This makes it hard to get too excited about this season, knowing the outcomes may not be favorable. 

But competitive conferences do still have their perks, for the fans at least. If it weren’t for the WNBA age limit, Clark would have been a top-3 pick in the draft last year. Instead, we get to watch her dominate the Big Ten again, and I can’t say I’m mad about that.

2. Maryland – Dec. 30 (State Farm Center)

The reigning Big Ten regular season and tournament champions are coming to Champaign late in December. Led by junior Ashley Owusu, the Terrapins were the nation’s highest scoring offense last year. Owusu averaged 18 points, six assists and six rebounds a game in a year in which she established herself as one of the top players in the sport. 

The Terrapins dominated last season, losing only three games and going undefeated at home, This came as a surprise to many, after head coach Brenda Frese was forced to rebuild the team due to transfers and graduations.

Their impressive season came to a surprising end, as they were upset by 6-seed Texas in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Maryland entered the tournament as a 2-seed and beat its first two opponents by 53 and 36 points, respectively. Texas would go on to lose its next game by 28 points, hinting that the win was likely a fluke. 

The Terrapins likely won’t be challenged much by the Illini, but if they can recreate 80% of their explosive offensive output last year, it should be fun to watch them work.

1. Missouri – Dec. 22 (State Farm)

Braggin’ Rights is back this year after its absence from the schedule last season. Unlike the majority of the games on this list, this one should actually be competitive. The Illini have lost their last three meetings with Missouri, but this year’s team is very different from the last roster to compete in Braggin’ Rights.

Just one player, senior Lyric Robins, remains from the squad that lost by 22 points nearly three years ago. This new crop of Illini has a chance to set the tone for the rivalry for years to come.

Like the Illini, Mizzou is trotting out a young roster with five freshmen looking to make names for themselves. It’ll be the first Braggin’ Rights game for most players on each team. With both teams struggling last year and ending the season near the bottom of their respective conferences, I’d expect them to look forward to this matchup.

These teams seem to be evenly matched on paper, though things can change as we evaluate player performances. Regardless, I’d expect this to be the Illini’s most competitive game of the season. The Illini have home-court advantage this time, whereas Braggin’ Rights is traditionally held at a neutral site. Whether they are able to capitalize on the fan support and come out with the win remains to be seen. We can only hope.

 

@JonesChristian

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