Women’s basketball sputters through 2013-14 season

Illinois%27+Jacqui+Grant+secures+a+rebound+during+the+game+against+Iowa+at+State+Farm+Center+on+March+2%2C+2014.
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Women’s basketball sputters through 2013-14 season

Illinois' Jacqui Grant secures a rebound during the game against Iowa at State Farm Center on March 2, 2014.

Illinois' Jacqui Grant secures a rebound during the game against Iowa at State Farm Center on March 2, 2014.

Illinois' Jacqui Grant secures a rebound during the game against Iowa at State Farm Center on March 2, 2014.

Illinois' Jacqui Grant secures a rebound during the game against Iowa at State Farm Center on March 2, 2014.

By By: Stephen Bourbon

Coming off Matt Bollant’s first season as head coach of the Illinois women’s basketball, where Illinois posted its best winning percentage since 2007 and advanced to the WNIT quarterfinals, the Illini regressed in 2013-14.

The losses of graduated Karisma Penn and Adrienne GodBold left a void of leadership and production for Illinois and the Illini finished the 2013-14 campaign with a 9-21 (2-14 Big Ten) record. The Illini didn’t win a home game in 2014, ended the season on an 11-game losing streak and dropped 16 of their last 18 contests.

“We want to grow the program, we’re just trying to figure out how to do that,” Bollant said after a loss to Michigan on Feb. 16. “Different players step up on different nights, and it’s hard to know playing time-wise, who to put in and who to play when they play one way a certain game and another way the next. That hurt us, that inconsistency.”

Illinois was a very thin team, at times having only nine healthy players. The Illini lost freshman Kennedy Cattenhead to a torn ACL before the season and missed starters Alexis Smith to a foot injury early in the season and Jacqui Grant to mononucleosis to end the season. In addition, sophomore forward Mckenzie Piper “mutually agreed” to part ways with the team.

Moore, the lone senior, led the Illini at 15.3 points per game, although she put up just 11.8 points per game against Big Ten opponents.

While Moore was expected to lead the team, the emergence of the freshman forward Grant was a highlight for the Illini. Grant wasn’t even named a starter until prior to the team’s season opener against Bradley, but the freshman delivered on both ends of the court. Grant posted a 12-point, 14-rebound double-double against the Braves in her first game and never looked back. She finished averaging 13 points per game to go with 5.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.

Early in the year, the Illini were an up-tempo, run-and-gun team at both ends of the floor. Illinois scored at least 87 points in the first four games of the season, highlighted by a record-setting performance against Alcorn State on Nov. 17. The Illini won 112-28, breaking the school record for margin of victory despite not having a field goal in the final 6:03.

Another highlight of the nonconference season was a matchup with Seton Hall on Dec. 9. The Illini were down 20 points with 8:45 remaining in the game before staging a huge comeback, capped by reserve forward Nia Oden’s go-ahead free throw with five seconds left to give the Illini a 71-70 victory.

In Big Ten play, though, the Illini struggled. After a 2-7 start to Big Ten play, Bollant benched his usual starters and started four freshmen alongside Ivory Crawford against Michigan State on Feb. 5. The move was intended to get more energy and effort on the defensive end, but resulted in a stagnant Illini offense. The team was held to less than 65 points in each of the final 10 games to end the season.

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