Illini women’s basketball, Hartwell, set to face Georgia Tech

Just two years ago, point-guard Sarah Hartwell called Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion home.

Now, she will be just another visitor Wednesday night when the Illini (5-3) take on the Yellow Jackets (4-2) in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

“I’m excited to go back and play against former friends and teammates,” Hartwell said. “For the most part I’m going to use the game to get better and to get ready for the Big Ten season.”

After graduating high school from Bellarmine Prep in her hometown of Tacoma, Wash., Hartwell originally signed with Georgia Tech with expectations of being the program’s point guard for the future. Unfortunately for Hartwell, things didn’t go as planned in her first collegiate season, and she elected to transfer to Illinois and sit out what would be her sophomore season because of the NCAA’s transfer rules.

“For the most part it just wasn’t a good fit overall for me,” Hartwell said when asked why she decided to transfer. The sophomore guard also said the circumstances of her transfer didn’t have a negative impact on her relationship to the school.

“When we first found out we were going [to Georgia Tech] she seemed excited about that,” Bollant said. “She’s got a boyfriend who plays on the guys’ team, and she’ll be seeing some former teammates, so I think there will be mixed emotions.”

Hartwell played sparingly as a freshman for Georgia Tech, appearing in 10 games but only averaging 3.8 minutes per game, the lowest on the team. After sitting out last season, she was inserted directly into the starting lineup by head coach Matt Bollant at the start of this season. The move has paid off, as Hartwell is one of the Illini’s top contributors. She leads the team in assists with 30 and assists per game with 3.75. Hartwell also ranks fourth in scoring with 10.9 points per game and is second-most efficient Illini from the field, shooting 45.6 percent overall.

Georgia Tech has played tough thus far this season, winning all four of its nonconference games against unranked opponents. The Yellow Jackets’ two losses came against No. 4 Tennessee and No. 23 Georgia by a combined total of 18 points. Leading the team is freshman guard Kaela Davis, who was ranked as the No. 1 guard and No. 2 high school player overall in country by ESPN.com. The 6-foot-2 Davis is averaging 18.8 points per game and 6.0 rebounds.

“They’re a really good basketball team,” Bollant said. “Davis is one of the best freshmen in the country. … They played with Tennessee at Tennessee, so they’re really talented. They’ve got two of the best players in the ACC with Davis and Tyaunna Marshall.”

Bollant said his team will have to limit the Yellow Jackets’ shots per possession by dominating the defensive glass, something the Illini have struggled at this season. He also said his team will have to take care of the basketball and to score more efficiently in order to limit transition opportunities.

After starting the season 4-1, the Illini have hit a rough patch, losing two of their past three games. Despite the struggles, Bollant and Hartwell believe the tougher scheduling will help prepare the Illini for the upcoming Big Ten slate.

“North Carolina, Arizona State, Georgia Tech, Colorado — they would all finish in the top of the Big Ten, they would all do extremely well in the Big Ten,” Bollant said. “It’s a really challenging schedule, and it’s going to give us an opportunity to grow and see what we we’re not good at.”

Blake can be reached at [email protected]