New lineup can’t energize Illini

By By: Stephen Bourbon

Despite an overhaul of the starting lineup, the Illinois women’s basketball team couldn’t buck its losing streak in a loss to Michigan State.

The Illini (9-14, 2-8 Big Ten) got burned by a late run from the No. 24 Spartans (15-7, 7-2) in the first half and never threatened, losing 69-53.

Illinois has lost four consecutive games, and nine of its past 11. Illinois is also winless in its last six appearances at home after opening the year a perfect 6-0 at State Farm Center.

“We haven’t shot the percentage we’ve needed to,” head coach Matt Bollant said. “Good teams make shots. We didn’t get as many touches inside with Jacqui being out, so we shot more from the 3-point line and tonight is not the kind of night where we can go 3-17 (from three) and beat a ranked team.”

The Illini sported almost an entirely new starting lineup Wednesday night, a move that head coach Matt Bollant hinted at after the team’s 77-58 loss to Indiana on Sunday. While usual starter Ivory Crawford was in the lineup, freshmen Sarah Livingston, Taylor Gleason and Ashley McConnell all earned their first career starts.

Illinois was without forward Jacqui Grant due to mono — the freshman will be out one to two weeks — while Michigan State was without starting point guard Kiana Johnson, who was suspended indefinitely due to a violation of team rules.

The lineup change didn’t change the team’s recent fortunes, especially in the first half. The Illini were down by just three points before the Spartans ripped off a 17-3 run to close out the half. The Illini didn’t make a field goal in the final seven minutes and 10 seconds of the first half.

Michigan State shot 69.6 percent from the field in the opening half as compared to Illinois’ 25.8 percent overall.

Illinois got a boost from the freshman Gleason, who scored six points in the first half but whose foul trouble forced her to leave the game late in the period. She ended with eight points on 4-of-12 shooting.

“I’m a perfectionist, so nothing is ever good enough,” Gleason said. “It wasn’t too nerve-wracking.”

“I like that Taylor believes in herself and believes that shots are going to go in,” Bollant added.

Tori Jankoska and Becca Mills led the Spartans with 22 points apiece on a combined 15-of-21 shooting. Illinois smothered the Spartans’ two leading scorers, Aerial Powers and Annalise Pickrel, into just 10 combined points, 17 below their combined season average.

While Ivory Crawford ended with 20 points, she was just 5-of-18 from the floor to go with seven rebounds.

In the second half, the Illini pulled off a 14-0 run to shrink the lead to nine, but Michigan State held firm down the stretch to secure the victory.

As for the lineup changes, Bollant said he wants competitors that are willing to play defense, and that this lineup might not be just a one-game audition.

“We’ll keep evaluating every day,” he said. “We were pleased with the way they fought today so they’ll probably get another chance this weekend and go from there.”

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