Absurd shooting gives Illinois women‘s basketball comfortable trip to Big Ten tournament quarterfinals

Junior+guard+Makira+Cook++yells+during+a+game+against+Nebraska+on+Feb.+22.+On+Thursday%2C+Cook+had+a+strong+performance+against+Rutgers%2C+putting+up+24+points.

Angel Saldivar

Junior guard Makira Cook yells during a game against Nebraska on Feb. 22. On Thursday, Cook had a strong performance against Rutgers, putting up 24 points.

By Conor Blount, Assistant Sports Editor

The close of a historic regular season for Illinois women’s basketball has officially welcomed in what looks to be its best postseason in years, with the Illini being a no-brainer for the Big Dance and boasting its highest Big Ten tournament seed in years. A hard fought battle on Wednesday between Rutgers and Northwestern ultimately sent the 11-seeded Scarlet Knights through to be the Illini’s opponent in the second round. Illinois won both of their regular season matchups with Rutgers handedly, with their third outing being no different as Illinois claimed a comfortable 81–55 victory to advance to the quarterfinals.

Unfortunately for the Illini, their postseason has thus far been marred by the injury of two key pieces in sophomore forward Brynn Shoup-Hill and sophomore guard Jayla Oden. The two have had an immense impact on Illinois’ success this season, with Shoup-Hill starting in every game she was healthy for while Oden started in about half of her healthy games.

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The absence of Shoup-Hill resulted in Illinois rolling out a smaller starting lineup, with senior guard Jada Peebles standing in her place. Starting alongside Peebles was Illinois’ star junior backcourt of Makira Cook and Genesis Bryant, sophomore guard Adalia McKenzie and junior forward Kendall Bostic.

Rutgers came down with the tipoff and despite failing to score on its first possession, ended up taking its first lead of the game with some successful post work. Illinois quickly responded with a close jumper from McKenzie, before Bryant sunk a shot from behind the arc to give the Illini their first lead.

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    From there, the Illini struggled to stretch its lead any higher than six points, leaving the Scarlet Knights within striking distance for several minutes. With just over a minute left to play in the first quarter, McKenzie appeared to break the seal and pushed Illinois’ lead to eight with a smooth midrange jump shot, but Rutgers battled back with some midrange action of its own for a score of 18–12 through the first 10 minutes.

    After starting the second quarter by allowing a lightning fast 4–0 run to cut their lead to just one possession, the Illini locked in and decided to take over the game. A four and a half minute 11–0 run from Illinois produced its largest lead of the game (29–16) and perhaps most encouraging was Cook and Bryant’s ability to get whatever they wanted against the Rutgers defense.

    By the time the Scarlet Knights were able to stop the bleeding, Illinois was in a groove and continued to grow its lead despite the few and far between answers from their opponents. A pair of free throws from McKenzie stretched Illinois’ lead to a game-high 17 points with two minutes left in the first half, but slipped a bit from there. Rutgers appeared to be closing the gap with a 6–0 run into halftime, but a last second three point make from Cook could not have epitomized the game any better (41–27).

    At halftime, Illinois was led in scoring by 14 points from Cook, all of which had been earned in the second quarter. Displaying Illinois’ balanced offense and ability to score at will was the presence of two other double digit scorers in Bryant and McKenzie, who had 10 points each. As a team, Illinois was shooting a blistering 5–10 from deep, compared to 0–2 from Rutgers, while also being significantly more efficient from within the arc, hitting 12 of its 19 attempts compared to an abysmal 10–27 from the Scarlet Knights.

    Cook started the second half where she left off, drilling another three with the hopes of putting the game away 20 minutes early. A couple of minutes later, Illinois’ lead breached 20 points for the first time of the night with a fastbreak layup from Cook, who was already just one point shy of 20 points herself.

    Heading into the final 10 minutes, Illinois had taken a commanding 26 point lead (68–42) and were showing no signs that a Scarlet Knight comeback was even remotely possible. With the back-to-back nature of the Big Ten tournament, this was an excellent opportunity for head coach Shauna Green to conserve the energy of her starters before a potential matchup in just 24 hours. Despite the Illini digging deeper into their rotation than normal, the Scarlet Knights failed to gain any ground and split the fourth quarter with the Illini.

    Cook and Bryant each put on a scoring clinic, totaling 24 and 21 points respectively. Perhaps most impressive about their performance was the efficiency, as the two combined for a scorching 7–12 mark from behind the three point line along with making 18 of their 24 total shots.

    Illinois will now face the three seed of the Big Ten tournament, No. 5 Maryland, this Friday at 8 p.m. with hopes of making a semifinal berth.

     

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