Illini break losing streak with comeback victory

Illinois’ Jacqui Grant shoots the ball during the game against Seton Hall at State Farm Center on Monday. The Illini won 71-70.

By By: Stephen Bourbon

It was a good thing Illinois women’s basketball head coach Matt Bollant was wearing a patch on his eye Monday night against Seton Hall. The Illinois head coach could barely look as the Pirates’ Ka-Deidre Simmons’ buzzer-beater attempt knocked off the backboard and out to cap an incredible comeback Illini victory.

Illinois (6-5) snapped a three-game losing streak in a wild 71-70 comeback win over Seton Hall (7-2). Bollant wore a patch over his left eye to help contain an infection sustained last week. Seldom-used reserve Nia Oden drained one of two free throws with five seconds left to take the lead.

Oden was only in the game because starting center Jacqui Grant fouled out with 4:20 left. She played 10 second-half minutes after sitting the entire first half. She wouldn’t make a shot but scored the most important point of the game. In a game where the Illini were outrebounded 48-33 and gave up 19 offensive rebounds, it was Oden with an offensive rebound in the waning seconds that led to the foul that set up the final free throw.

“I would definitely say this is the best moment in my basketball career,” Oden said. “It was just great to be out there with my teammates and know they have my back just as much as I have theirs.”

Down 63-43 with 8:45 left in the second half, Illinois looked dead in the water. The game swung in the Illini’s favor from then on, as Illinois went on a 27-5 run to actually take a 70-68 with 31 seconds left on an Ivory Crawford layup. The Illini didn’t get back on defense and Seton Hall immediately retied it on a layup, setting the scene for the final possession.

“I don’t know that I’ve been in a game where it felt like a nightmare for so long and then felt like a dream at the end,” Bollant said. “Still down 12 with three minutes left, to be able to win that game, it was pretty amazing.”

The contest was a back-and-forth affair until the Illini went cold to end the first half. After a Grant jumper with 6:36 left in the half, Illinois didn’t drain another field goal until Alexis Smith went coast-to-coast for a buzzer-beating layup to end the half. In the interim, Seton Hall turned a 22-18 deficit into a 36-25 lead heading into the break.

The Pirates pushed the lead to 20 for most of the second half with just eight minutes remaining before Illini’s Buzz defense forced 11 second-half steals and limited Seton Hall to seven points in the final 8:45.

Amber Moore played with four fouls for most of the second half, but was able to get loose in the second half. The senior finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds, including a game-tying 3-pointer with 42.3 seconds left, after only two points on 1-9 shooting in the first half.

“Amber was really special in the second half,” Bollant said. “Going 7-for-11 in the second half, including every big shot that we had to have down the stretch — we need her to make big shots, there’s no question she can do that.”

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.