Women’s basketball looks for first win against top-10 opponent since ‘03

The Illinois women’s basketball team usually ends practice huddled together listening to head coach Jolette Law. But Wednesday morning was different.

After wrapping up practice at the Assembly Hall, the Illini heard from Reesa Burgstrom, of Champaign.

Burgstrom, who has stage four breast cancer, will serve as an honorary coach in Thursday’s contest against No. 10 Ohio State.

Following her speech, several players approached Burgstrom to thank or hug her. Junior guard Adrienne GodBold said listening to Burgstrom’s story was an eye-opening experience.

“We’re out here complaining about the minor pains that we go through on the court, but she’s living her life not even knowing if this is her last day to live,” GodBold said. “It just made me feel blessed.”

The Illini will wear pink uniforms against the Buckeyes as they host the annual “Play 4Kay Pink Game” to raise awareness for breast cancer.

“You’re making people aware about this disease,” Law said. “It’s alive and well. It doesn’t have a name, an age on it. Some people are young; some people are old. … I’m praying every day that they’ll come up with a cure.”

The initiative, formerly known as the “WBCA Pink Zone Game,” was renamed to honor the late North Carolina State coach Kay Yow, who passed away in 2009 after a 22-year battle with breast cancer. The eight-time national coach of the year recruited Law to play for her before Law joined Vivian Stringer’s squad at Iowa.

The cause will provide the Illini with extra motivation to notch their first win against a top-10 opponent since 2003.

“I think we feel good about our chances,” Law said. “We have nothing to lose, everything to gain. We’re just going to go out there and play with that sense of urgency.”

Illinois (8-16, 2-9 Big Ten) played the Buckeyes (21-2, 8-2) close in the Jan. 22 meeting between these teams, but Ohio State pulled away in the final minutes behind big performances from guards Tayler Hill and Samantha Prahalis.

“They came in in the clutch,” sophomore guard Amber Moore said. “I think we played a really good game against them and we know what we are capable of doing. We just have to stick to the game plan.”

Prahalis and Hill combined for 54 points in the last meeting.

“They’re great players,” Law said. “Sammie Prahalis is a pro. She’s gonna definitely go high in the WNBA draft this year. … I don’t think we’re definitely gonna stop them — nobody in the conference has stopped them yet — but just contain and limit their touches.”

The Illini hope to have a full game from junior forward Karisma Penn, who was hampered with foul trouble in Sunday’s loss to Purdue.

“I need her presence,” Law said. “I told her to play smarter. If the girl’s going up for a layup, don’t try to block every shot. And just some of her fouls have been knick-knack fouls like stuff that’s just getting around on a screen.”

Penn played just 14 minutes after picking up two fouls in the first five minutes, but Law said she plans to play Penn regardless of her foul count.

“I told her just now, ‘If you pick up two, you’re staying in there, cause you’re sitting on the bench anyway,’” Law said. “If you foul out in the first half, oh well. I think she realizes that her presence on the floor is needed, and hopefully she’ll respond here tomorrow.”

Sophomore forward Kersten Magrum missed the last matchup with Ohio State after suffering a concussion against Wisconsin on Jan. 8. She is a game-time decision for Thursday.

“She’s feeling better, but to me, if she’s not close to being 100 percent, I’m not going to play her,” Law said.

GodBold said a win over the Buckeyes would give the Illini momentum through the final stretch of the season and the Big Ten tournament.

“This win would be like some fire on our team’s butt because we’re gonna get really excited,” GodBold said. “I know we’re gonna win; I feel it. But we don’t want to get overexcited, overjoyed because we want to stay calm and focus on finishing the season strong. It’s gonna be a good win and it’s gonna be hard to stay composed after we win. I think we got it.”