Team of the century: Illini women’s basketball go dancing in 2003
May 2, 2020
When the Illinois women’s basketball team last made the NCAA tournament, the iPhone was still four years away from being released to the public.
The year was 2003, and the team went to the WNIT quarterfinals the year before, ending the season on a loss to Big Ten rival Michigan State at Assembly Hall.
The team was led in scoring by Iveta Marcauskaite, who averaged 17.6 points per game, followed by Cindy Dallas at 13.9 ppg.
The season begins:
Though the Illini lost in the WNIT, they came back the next year stronger than the previous year. The team returned many of their top players, including Angelina Williams and Dallas. Williams went on to play in the WNBA, and Dallas is now an actress.
During the season, head coach Theresa Grentz posted the best record at Illinois this century, with a 17-12 campaign. Grentz’ last coaching stint was at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania from 2015-2017.
The 2002-2003 team began the preseason playing the Dominican Republic national team at Assembly Hall. The Illini knocked the Dominican Republic, 82-74.
The team’s first part of the non-conference schedule featured wins against in-state rivals DePaul and Illinois State before a 75-73 setback against Arizona in early December.
The Illini defeated Eastern Michigan at Assembly Hall before taking on the then-No. 15 Mississippi State Bulldogs at the United Center December 14, 2002.
The Bulldogs made some runs in the first half, but the Illini tied up the game at 30 apiece at the half. Illinois would go on to lose, 72-67, against the Bulldogs at the largest arena in the state of Illinois.
Despite the loss, the players enjoyed playing in the Chicago Bulls’ home arena, especially given that many of the players were from Illinois and grew up watching the Bulls dominate the NBA.
“That place was just incredible,” said Allison Guth, an Arlington Heights native. “Just to get the opportunity to be in those walls of your absolute heroes was a pretty special and dynamic feeling.”
“You grew up watching games,” said Maggie Acuna, an Oak Brook native. “Being able to be on the inside of the court and, actually, in that moment at the United Center was just unreal.”
After the Mississippi State game, the Illini defeated Missouri, Auburn (for then-head coach Theresa Grentz’s 600th career win), Indiana and Michigan before falling to Minnesota 77-62 on Jan. 9.
In the Big Ten, it’s notoriously difficult to win on the road. The team went 4-5 on the road, including getting swept by Purdue, whose fan base made competing difficult.
“Purdue, like, their fans were brutal,” Dallas said. “I remember they would get a whole bunch of tickets, (and) sell out a section (at) Assembly Hall just so they could heckle us.”
Illinois split a home-and-home series with Wisconsin and dropped a game to Ohio State but defeated the Golden Gophers when the teams played in Champaign.
The rest of the Big Ten season featured several losses, where the Illini swept Big Ten rival Iowa, got swept by Purdue and split the season series with Indiana and Ohio State.
The team’s last win came on Feb. 27, 2003, against in-state and Big Ten rival Northwestern before ending the regular season with a road loss at Indiana.
The team drew a Big Ten tournament matchup against Michigan. Going in, the Illini had routed the Wolverines, 87-59, on Jan. 3.
Michigan, who the Illini played the year before in the Big Ten tournament, won by a significant margin, similar to the previous year (the Illini also lost to Michigan in the 2004 Big Ten tournament).
“I honestly think we were cursed at Conseco,” Dallas said. “What did Mike Tyson say? ‘Everybody has a plan till you get punched in the face,’ you know. And that was kind of what happened. We just continuously got punched in the face at Conseco.”
Once the Big Ten tournament was in session, Illinois struggled, facing a 33-31 deficit at the half. In the second half, the Illini were outscored, 50-28.
Illinois, bounced out of the Big Ten tournament after one round, eagerly awaited its assignment in the NCAA tournament.
After the bracket was set, the Illini headed down to Knoxville, Tennessee, the University of Tennessee’s campus, to take on the Virginia Cavaliers. The teams entered with similar records, Illinois 17-11 and Virginia 16-12.
Playing in a historic arena might be intimidating, but Dallas felt calm before the game, partially due to the fan atmosphere of the previous game.
“I felt, like, good vibes,” Dallas said. “(The team that played before us) had this mascot. I don’t know who it was, it was, like, Georgia Tech or something like that. And they had this bee or hornet or something, dancing, like, and… he or she was (giving) it everything and it just gave me life before the game.”
Once the game started, both teams came out strong. After nice runs by each team, the Illini held a narrow 31-30 lead at the half.
But once the second half began, the Illini’s season and the good vibes evaporated. The 20 minutes that followed would be Illinois’ last half in the NCAA tournament to date. Aminata Yanni led the team in points with 11 while Williams and Dallas finished with 9 and 8, respectively.
Williams ended the season leading the Illini in points at 15.4 points per game, and Dallas finished second with 12.3 PPG.
Though the team did not advance far into the tournament, they went down as one of the best teams in Illinois history and are the most recent team to go to the Big Dance.
Acuna, who was a freshman at the time, looked back fondly at the NCAA tournament.
“Making the tournament, it was obviously a highlight,” Acuna said. “For us, making the tournament was a huge accomplishment.”