Bollant’s new lineup trades offensive production for defensive energy

By By: Stephen Bourbon

Over the past two games, the Illinois women’s basketball team has sported almost an entirely new starting lineup.

In conference matches against Michigan State and Minnesota, the Illini had usual starter Ivory Crawford alongside reserve Nia Oden and three freshmen making their first collegiate starts. In the two games since the change, Illinois (9-15, 2-9 Big Ten) is 0-2 and the statistics say the change hasn’t been for the better.

Head coach Matt Bollant decided to make the switch after he was disappointed in the team’s defensive effort in the first half of a loss against Indiana. The Illini gave up 43 points in the first half on 51.7 percent shooting. Two days before the next game against Michigan State, Bollant made the switch.

Bollant subbed out senior Amber Moore along with guards Alexis Smith and Sarah Hartwell and brought on freshmen Taylor Gleason, Ashley McConnell and Sarah Livingston. In addition, usual starting center Jacqui Grant has missed the past two games with mono and has been replaced by Nia Oden in the starting five.

“I think the way that we practice, our coaches always put us in a position so that we’re ready to go in whenever,” Livingston said. “So I think we were all ready and prepared in advance.”

Though the last two games are a small sample size against two teams in the upper half of the Big Ten standings, Illinois’ offense has been below par with its new lineup. The offense is scoring 7.8 fewer points per game in the past two contests (57 points per game as opposed to 64.8 in the other nine conference games).

The four new starters average a combined 9.7 points per game in conference play, as opposed to the 37.8 points per contest from the old four. Leading scorer Ivory Crawford is still on the floor, but McConnell thinks it could be a team effort that picks up the offense.

“I think we all could,” McConnell said when asked who could step up on offense. “Taylor does a really good job of attacking the basket and getting her in-between shot and that’s really good. Also, Nia does a really good job of o-boarding and getting to the rim for layups.”

While Bollant is sacrificing offense with his new lineup, he wanted to see energy on the defensive end and it has been there for Illinois. Against middle of the pack offensive teams in Michigan State and Minnesota — fifth and sixth in the conference in scoring offense, respectively  — Illinois has allowed 67.5 points per game, 7.4 points fewer than the other nine conference games.

“I think our energy overall at practice has been tenfold,” Livingston said. “Even with our energy in the game, our energy was really good.”

Despite an uptick in energy, with the 6-foot-3 Grant out of the lineup, the Illini are usually outmatched in size in the low post. Livingston stands 6-foot-2 but no one else on the team taller than 5-foot-11 has played in Grant’s absence.

The opposition has noticed and constantly attacks the paint. The Gophers’ Amanda Zahue took advantage with 23 points and 12 rebounds while Michigan State center Becca Mills put up 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting.

“We have to make sure we get double teams inside. Quick, aggressive double teams inside,” Bollant said. “We’re young and not very big, so we just have to battle and fight.”

On the perimeter, Gleason plays off the ball at just 5-foot-8 and is normally forced to guard players bigger than her. How does she hold her own?

“Some swag,” Gleason said with a laugh. “That’s what the coaches keep saying, don’t leave your swag anywhere and keep bringing the swag. Just that tough-nosed energy because I know I’m undersized.”

While the new starting five doesn’t have the production on the stat sheet as other players on the team, Bollant is hoping they bring enough of the little things to snap a five-game losing streak.

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