Illini end slump with road win against Michigan State

The Illinois women’s basketball team may have finally broke the ice.

In what has been a dismal start to 2014, the Illini are one step forward to righting the ship in a season where road and conference wins have been scarce. Illinois (9-10, 2-4 Big Ten) traveled to East Lansing, Mich., and left with its second road and conference win of the season, beating Michigan State (12-7, 4-2) 61-51. The Illini received a balanced scoring attack and stout defense from its starters, as each player scored nine points or more.

“We said before the game, ‘Anything is possible for those who believe, so let’s believe in ourselves,’” head coach Matt Bollant said. “We challenged them with that in practice, we always fight so hard and battle, but we don’t always do that in games. We did that for the first time in the second half. We got down eight in the second half and we said ‘Let’s embrace this. Put a smile on your face and go make plays.’ And we did.”

Free throws proved to be the difference for Illinois down the stretch, as it made 10-13 to close out the game with a win. The team also went to the foul stripe and nailed 19-25 (76 percent) shots to the Spartans’ 8-15 (53.3 percent). The game was tight up until the final four minutes, when freshman forward Jacqui Grant broke a 46-46 tie by scoring five consecutive points to give the Illini a lead they would never give up. Grant finished the game with 13 points and a team-high 10 rebounds. 

“For us to make 19 free throws, more than they attempted, we haven’t done that all year,” Bollant said. “We were aggressive, we got to the foul line and we controlled what we could control tonight.” 

Forward Ivory Crawford once again led Illinois in scoring, chipping in with 14 points and six rebounds. The junior has led the team in scoring in each of the past seven contests, but this was the first time she failed to reach 19 points. Junior guard Alexis Smith played her most complete game of the season, scoring nine points to go with seven rebounds and six assists.

Defense paved the way for the Illini’s ninth win of the season, as the Spartans’ leading scorer, forward Annalise Pickrel, was held to just nine points on 4-of-9 shooting. Most importantly, the Illinois defense kept her 3-point shot at bay, allowing her to knock down just one of her five attempts. She had averaged 45.9 percent from beyond the arc coming into the game.

“For Amber (Moore), it was her last trip to Michigan and I told her before the game, ‘Let’s get this done,” Bollant said. “‘We didn’t get it done at Michigan last year or this year, so let’s get this done at Michigan State.’ To see her with tears in her eyes in the locker room and our team so excited for her was really neat.”

Blake can be reached at [email protected].