Illini women’s basketball making late Big Ten push

All season, the Illinois women’s basketball team has been searching for its breakthrough game, and they may have found it. The Illini (10-6, 4-9 Big Ten) took down No. 10 Ohio State last week and beat Indiana on Sunday for their first back-to-back wins since early December.

After an 0-7 start to the Big Ten season, Illinois has won four of its last six games, all in the final minutes or overtime, an area in which the Illini had struggled throughout the season.

Illinois notched its first conference win with a 71-62 overtime victory over Michigan State on Jan. 26 and then scored five points in the final 40 seconds against Minnesota for a 72-67 win the following week on Feb. 2. Last Thursday, the Illini downed the Buckeyes 66-65 with a last-second shot by Alexis Burke and beat the struggling Hoosiers in similar fashion Sunday.

“When we were down four, we didn’t blink,” head coach Jolette Law said of her team’s 61-60 victory over Indiana. “We took care of the basketball. We got the rebounds. We got stops and we finished the game.”

Prior to the overtime win at Michigan State, close losses plagued the Illini. They lost five games in the final possession or overtime. Four of those losses came against Big Ten opponents, including first-place Purdue.

“At this point, we’re used to close games and buzzer beaters,” senior guard Lydia McCully said. “We feel it’s our turn to start getting those games to go our way. We have a lot of confidence now.”

The Illini sit at 10th place in the conference but can make a push for the middle of the pack with winnable games remaining on the schedule against Minnesota (12-14, 4-8), Northwestern (13-12, 3-9) and Wisconsin (8-16, 4-8). The three teams make up the bottom five of the conference with Illinois and Indiana.

“I think we’re hungry,” McCully said. “We focus a lot on staying positive. The reality is we should be one of the top teams in the Big Ten. The season is not over, and we have nothing to lose at this point.”

With just three games remaining in the regular season, the Illini’s postseason hopes are riding on the Big Ten Tournament, where the Illini found success last season. Despite entering the tournament last in the Big Ten, Illinois became the first No. 11 seed to advance to the semifinals. Illinois knocked off No. 6-seeded Wisconsin and No. 3-seeded Michigan before losing to No. 2-seeded Penn State in the semifinals.

“We’ve already surpassed our win total in the Big Ten from last year,” junior forward Karisma Penn said. “These next few games are definitely winnable, so we just want to keep it going and finish the season off strong.”