Illinois women’s basketball wins home opener vs. IPFW

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Illinois’ Ivory Crawford attempts a layup past IPFW’s defense during the game at State Farm Center on Friday. The Illini won the season opener 70-63, despite going 0-for-21 on 3-pointers.

By Joey Figueroa

Before Illinois’ season opener against IPFW on Friday, head coach Matt Bollant said he thought the Illini were further along offensively than they were on the defensive end.

That proved to be the inverse in the Illini’s 70-63 win over the Mastodons.

Illinois finished the game 0-for-21 from 3-point range, but had a 44-12 advantage in points in the paint, largely due to transition baskets off of IPFW turnovers. After starting the game 0-for-12 from behind the 3-point line, the Illini turned up their defensive pressure in the second half and forced 35 total turnovers.

“Our defense helped us win that game,” Bollant said. “For us to go 0-for-21 and still win the game by seven says a lot about our defense and our hustle.”

Bollant was forced to go to the bench early in the first half because freshman center Chatrice White — a McDonalds All-American playing her first game in orange and blue — and senior guard Ivory Crawford each picked up two early fouls. The Illini trailed by as many as eight points and went into the locker room down 32-26 at the half.

Crawford scored just two points in six first-half minutes, but freshman guard Amarah Coleman kept Illinois in the game with her aggressiveness off the bench.

“She knows that she can play,” Bollant said of Coleman. “She gets to the rim and she knows she’s good, she’s got some toughness to her. Kids that are tough make plays when it’s on, and she did that.”

Coleman remained a factor in the second half with her ability to pressure the ball once Illinois began full-court pressing, but Crawford provided the real spark with her tenacious play in the paint. In the second half, Crawford scored 16 points in 18 minutes, while grabbing five offensive rebounds, nabbing four steals and getting to the free throw line eight times.

“That’s what I’m supposed to do,” Crawford said. “A lot of people look up to me. It’s my last year, and I’ve got to lead this team to where it needs to be.”

Crawford went on her own 5-0 run three minutes into the second half and eventually tied the game at 45 with 10 minutes left in the game. The Illini’s suffocating defense helped them build a 59-54 lead with four minutes left, but the Mastodons went on an 8-3 run to even things up at 62 with two minutes remaining.

Subbing in for White after she picked up her fifth foul, freshman guard Kennedy Cattenhead nailed a runner to give the Illini a 64-62 lead. Cattenhead’s only field goal of the game would prove to be the game winner, as the Illini didn’t look back from there and sealed a 70-63 victory.

With a lid on the basket for Illinois’ 3-point shooters, Crawford and Coleman did most of their damage in the paint and each finished with 18 points.

“Threes weren’t falling for some teammates, so we knew we had to adjust,” Coleman said. “We knew that me and Ivory are the strongest people to get to the rim, so we had to use that ability.”

Despite being in foul trouble, White played an important role in Illinois’ dominance down low. In just 24 minutes, she finished the game with 15 points and 10 rebounds, her first career double-double as an Illini.

White also grabbed six offensive rebounds, contributing to Illinois’ 24-17 advantage in that category even though IPFW had the 49-44 edge in total rebounding. The Illini also got to the free throw line 16 more times than the Mastodons, but made just 22 of their 39 attempts.

Despite the sloppy play, Bollant embraced the victory.

“We’re going to be a work in progress and are going to always want to be better,” Bollant said. “I think it’s really important that we celebrate what we did well today.”

Joey can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @joeyfigueroa3.