Illinois women’s basketball starts road trip against Southern Illinois

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Illinois’ Kyley Simmons dribbles the ball down the court during the game against IPFW on Friday November 14.

By Joey Figueroa

Following a one-game stint at home, Illinois will embark on a three-game stretch on the road, beginning with a stop in Carbondale, Illinois, on Saturday for a matchup with Southern Illinois.

Fresh off a 23-point blowout win against Virginia on Wednesday, the Illini (6-2) will try to carry over some momentum from what head coach Matt Bollant said was Illinois’ best performance of the season. The Salukis (4-1), having not played since their 67-52 victory over Mercer on Sunday, head into Saturday’s game well-rested and will look to defend their home court against the surging Illini.

“Southern Illinois is really good,” Bollant said. “We need to come on edge just like we did (Wednesday) and respect them because they’re going to be ready for us.”

Southern Illinois has a well-rounded and efficient offense that ranks in the top 50 in the nation in field goal percentage and features four different players averaging at least nine points per game. The Illini will have their hands full in the paint with junior forward Dyana Pierre, who ranks 61st in the nation in field goal percentage and recently earned Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Week honors.

Pierre also averages 11.6 rebound per game — 15th in the nation. The Illini have had trouble with limiting opponent rebounding, but Bollant said Illinois’ length has been a key in stopping other teams’ second chance opportunities.

“Our length makes such a difference,” Bollant said. “Even when they get offensive put-backs, they don’t always get baskets out of it. We get tips and make shots tough inside which is great.”

The Salukis will also cause problems on the wing with leading scorer Rishonda Napier, who is averaging more than 18 points per game this season. Bollant said he’s been impressed with the Illini’s ability to consistently limit other teams’ top scorers this year.

“That’s growth,” Bollant said. “There were a lot of times last year when the best players had great games against us. We just didn’t take things away, and I feel like we’ve been trying to do that.”

On the offensive end, Illinois has scored more than 75 points in three of its last four games, mostly due to 3-point shooting. The Illini have made 30 3-point shots in their past four games and have hovered around 40 percent from deep, which is the type of shooting Bollant said he envisioned prior to the season.

Junior guard Kyley Simmons has led the way with 15 made 3-pointers in her past four games and attributes her open shots to the havoc Illinois can create in the paint.

“It’s always nice to see your shot fall, but I give all the credit to my teammates,” Simmons said. “They’re the ones who are finding me and get me wide open shots.”

The Illini haven’t dropped a game to the Salukis since 1991, but this will be Illinois’ first trip to Southern Illinois since 1995. Senior guard Taylor Tuck said being on the road won’t change the Illini’s approach, especially when it comes to bringing energy off the bench.

“We’re playing on their court so we have to come on edge and be ready to set the (tone) right from the beginning,” Tuck said. “Our starters do a great job of that, so whenever our bench comes in we have to keep the energy at the same level or even higher.”

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