Illini face Iowa in opening round of Big Ten Tournament

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Illinois’ Amber Moore (42) drives the ball during the game against Iowa at State Farm Center on Sunday, March 2, 2014.

By By: Stephen Bourbon

The Illinois women’s basketball team will be facing a familiar foe Thursday in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament.

As the lowest seeded team in the tournament, Illinois (9-20, 2-14 Big Ten) is facing No. 5-seed Iowa (23-7, 11-5), with the winner of this game facing No. 4 Purdue on Friday. The Illini will take on the Hawkeyes just four days after the two teams met in Champaign. 

The Hawkeyes dominated that contest, an 81-56 blowout on the Illini’s home floor, and also notched a double-digit victory in Iowa City, Iowa, in the teams’ first meeting on Feb. 13. 

“I’m glad we get to play them again, especially in the first round,” guard Taylor Tuck said. “We’re so much more excited. It’s that revenge factor.” 

Illinois will need to improve on its transition defense to hang on during Thursday’s contest. In two meetings this season, Iowa has outscored Illinois 26-2 in fast break points. Head coach Matt Bollant knows the Illini can’t give up easy baskets against the Hawkeyes team that leads the conference in points per game.

“We didn’t do a very good job of getting back, especially in the first game,” Bollant said. “They got some lead-outs off turning it over and got some layups. I thought our passing hurt us.”

Iowa’s floor general Samantha Logic garnered unanimous first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches. She makes the team’s offense flow. But in two games against the Illini, center Bethany Doolittle has been the Hawkeyes’ most efficient scorer. Doolittle, a second-team All-Big Ten selection, is a combined 11-for-14 from the field and is averaging 12.5 points per game. 

Illinois got forward Jacqui Grant back Sunday, but she is limited to 20 minutes play time as she recovers from mononucleosis. Bollant said her minutes were limited due to her physical condition after not playing for three weeks.

One recent bright spot for the Illini has been the play of guard Taylor Gleason. The freshman is averaging 10 points and seven assists per game in the last two contests. Though she may never be a true point guard, Bollant has been pleased with her growth as the season has gone on.

“Just more confidence, coming off of ball screens aggressively a lot more than she did early in the year,” Bollant said. “She’s a combo guard. She can handle it and play point in a pinch when we need it.”

The Illini are enduring a 10-game losing streak and Thursday’s contest could be the end of the season. Tuck said with the end of the year in sight, there is a sense of urgency.

“It’s the tournament now, it’s all or nothing,” Tuck said. “There’s no second chances. If you lose, you go home. So we’ve got to bring it all and leave it all on the floor.”

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