Illini try to break out of conference slump

By By: Stephen Bourbon

Despite a start to Big Ten play that is colder than the Champaign winter, the Illinois women’s basketball team is looking to heat up at the end of a long string of road games.

Illinois (8-10, 1-4 Big Ten) wraps up a three-game road trip when it travels to Michigan State (12-6, 4-1) on Thursday. The Illini split their first two games on the road after starting off conference play with three straight losses at home. Now they are looking to focus on closing out individual games. 

“I think finishing games has been our downfall,” guard Alexis Smith said. “Just defensive and mental breakdowns I think has killed us and consistency throughout the whole game has been hurting us.”

Michigan State is coming off its first Big Ten loss in its last game against No. 16 Penn State — snapping a six-game winning streak for the Spartans. Michigan State is 36th in the RPI rankings and is one of seven Big Ten teams to be receiving votes in the latest Associated Press poll.

The Spartans’ offense is run by point guard Kiana Johnson who is averaging 8.6 points per game and 6.3 assists per contest, good for third best in the conference. Johnson’s assist numbers jumped to 7.4 in five Big Ten games, and with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.4, forcing turnovers will be a focus for the Illini. 

“We need to cause turnovers, that’s what we’re known for, that’s what we need to keep on doing,” Smith said. “But we also need to be patient on offense so that doesn’t create the other team’s offense.”

As is custom under head coach Matt Bollant, the Illini are forcing more turnovers than almost any team in the country. Illinois is ninth nationally in steals per game and 10th in turnover margin. 

A key to success this season for the Illini has been the play of their defense. Illinois is 7-1 when holding its opponents to 70 or less points in a game, as opposed to 1-9 when opposing teams break the 70-point threshold. Illinois earned its first such victory on Jan. 15 against Northwestern, pulling out a 76-74 decision on the road. The win also marked Illinois’ first road win of the season and the team’s first conference victory in five tries. 

If we don’t turn them over, we give up too many easy shots, especially in the second half,” Bollant said. “We haven’t been as good defensively in the second half, and that hurt us the most.”

Illini guard Ivory Crawford has been a stimulant on offense in recent games, posting 19 or more points in each of the past six games. Crawford’s scoring average jumped to 15.4 points per game — 11th in the Big Ten — while Amber Moore continues to lead the team at 16.3 points per game. 

Michigan State’s leading scorer is sharpshooter Annalise Pickrel. The senior forward leads the team at 14.0 points per game and 45.9 percent from behind the 3-point line. Her shooting percentage from beyond the arc ranks fifth in the Big Ten. 

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