Women’s basketball down, but not out of Big Ten picture

The Big Ten women’s basketball picture is murky. More than halfway through the conference schedule, spots one through 12 are still up for grabs.

Every team has at least one Big Ten loss, and only Indiana is still winless in the conference; just four teams have losing records. After No. 15 Purdue, No. 11 Ohio State and No. 16 Nebraska, six teams crowd the middle in the four-to-six win range. Even the bottom three teams — Northwestern, Illinois and Indiana — still have a shot to end up in the middle of the pack.

The Illini (7-15, 1-8 Big Ten) may be down in the standings at second-to-last, but the parity within the conference certainly doesn’t have them out.

“It keeps you positive knowing that if you come out and you get these next couple games, you can still jumble up and jump in the middle of the conference,” Illini senior Lydia McCully said.

With just one win in the conference, the Illini aren’t giving in.

“Everybody seems to be about two or three games apart,” Illinois sophomore forward Kersten Magrum said. “We still have seven games left, so hopefully we can get some wins to get more up in the rankings.”

Minnesota (12-11, 4-5) presents the next opportunity for Illinois to make some noise within the conference. The Golden Gophers come to the Assembly Hall on Thursday night after upsetting the second-place Buckeyes (20-2, 7-2) on Sunday.

A guard tandem of freshman Rachel Banham and senior Kara Buford leads Minnesota in scoring, with 15.7 and 13.3 points-per-game, respectively. Buford enters Thursday’s contest on a streak of 13 straight games with double-digit scoring. McCully said physical play will be key to defending Buford and Banham.

“A lot of scorers surprisingly don’t like as much physical play as you think they would,” McCully said. “So I think staying physical with her is definitely going to help us out.”

Head coach Jolette Law also emphasized the importance of defending the Gopher’s perimeter scoring, but said her focus will be on the players in Orange and Blue.

“It’s good to know about Minnesota, but I’m, right now, constantly trying to stay focused on my team doing the little things and doing what we gotta do,” Law said. “We’ve got seven games left, and we’ve got to focus on taking care of business.”

Coming off a 20-point loss to Nebraska, the Illini will look to get junior forward Karisma Penn more involved on the offensive end.

“I think we kind of lost sight of her as a team,” Magrum said. “So next game we really need to get her going. Just get her more touches so she can do more things offensively, and that turns into defense.”

Penn leads the Illini in scoring, averaging 14.2 points per game, but scored just three points in the loss to the Cornhuskers.

“I said, ‘I need you to be aggressive,’” Law said of Penn. “‘I know they’re double-teaming and triple-teaming you, but you still gotta demand the basketball.’ She’s looking to pass the ball more versus doing her role. I think you’ll see her more aggressive.”