Despite 2 players’ injuries, Illini look to defeat Valparaiso in opener

Although the Illini women’s basketball team will be without junior guard Alexis Smith and sophomore forward McKenzie Piper in Tuesday’s home opener against Valparaiso, Illinois can’t be considered shorthanded, relatively speaking.

Valparaiso is at an even bigger disadvantage when it comes to depth. Four Crusaders are expected to miss the game with injuries, and another two are sitting out the year due to transfer rules. Valparaiso’s 13-player roster is down seven for Tuesday’s game, which should give the Illini a distinct advantage, especially in the second half.

Illinois will be missing Smith and Piper for the second game in a row. Head coach Matt Bollant said Smith is progressing well from a stress fracture and should be ready to resume playing at the end of the week, pending an appointment with a doctor Tuesday. Piper, who was expected to compete for the center spot, has been practicing after suffering a concussion in the offseason, but Bollant said it has been “a slow process for her,” and she currently doesn’t have a timetable to return. Junior guard Taylor Tuck and freshman forward Jacqui Grant will continue to play in place of the injured duo.

“Alexis is one of best defensive players on the ball, and she’s a good talker,” Bollant said when asked what the team is missing without the two players. “McKenzie can really shoot the basketball and getting her back will help us make some more shots hopefully.”

Like the Illini, the Crusaders dropped their home opener in a 78-56 loss to Saint Louis. Valparaiso’s lack of scoring bodes well for Illinois, as the Illini dropped 92 points on Bradley in the season opener; however, Illinois gave up 98 points in the loss. A lack of aggression on the offensive side of the ball led to a 25-to-2 free throw differential in favor of Bradley, which ultimately cost Illinois the game. The Illini were aggressive defensively, probably over-aggressive, as key cogs such as sophomore guard Sarah Hartwell and freshman forward Sarah Livingston found themselves in foul trouble early on, limiting their production.

“We have to be more disciplined with what we do,” Bollant said. “We want to be aggressive, but we just have to be smart with our hands. We’ve got to be smart with setting screens and take some of the silly fouls away. That’ll help us a bunch.”

Valparaiso will look to spread the floor with its ball screen motion offense and attempt to feed transfer Sharon Kurungi, who scored 23 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the team’s first exhibition. Foul trouble limited her play in the Crusaders’ loss, but senior guard Charae Richardson stepped up to lead the team in scoring with 15.

The Illini shot efficiently from the 3-point line in its loss, going 12-27 just a year after shooting 29 percent as a team. Senior guard Amber Moore and junior Ivory Crawford scored 21 and 24 points, respectively, and will look to continue their hot shooting Tuesday at State Farm Center.

“We still need to be better defensively and get better rebounding the basketball,” Bollant said. “If we can get better in those two areas, that’ll really help our team.”

Blake can be reached at [email protected]