Illinois women’s basketball struggling in conference play

By Joey Figueroa

Before winter break, the Illinois women’s basketball team had gotten off to one of its best starts in recent memory with a 9-3 mark against nonconference foes. The Illini may not have been fully prepared for Big Ten play, however, and are just 2-4 in conference play so far this season.

Illinois (11-7, 2-4 Big Ten) had won four of five games heading into its first Big Ten matchup against Purdue on Dec. 28, but that momentum wasn’t enough to edge out a victory in a low-scoring game.

Following the 62-55 defeat, head coach Matt Bollant said he wanted more leadership from his older players and for the Illini to have more confidence.

“We’ve got to start by believing,” Bollant said. “For Illinois to take a step, they’ve got to believe that they’re supposed to win those games and that we’re different and better. And I’m not sure that we started the game with that mentality.”

Illinois bounced back in its first game of the new year by handing Penn State its worst home loss in four years. The 91-76 victory in State College was the first time the Illini had beaten the Lady Lions on their home court since 1998. Illinois was led by sophomore forward Jacqui Grant’s career-high 29 points and looked to carry over momentum into its next game against Iowa.

“Everyone in the Big Ten’s going to be really tough this year, so just to get one win on the road is really good,” freshman center Chatrice White said after the victory over Penn State. “I think that’s definitely going to carry over at home in front of our crowd.”

White proved to be correct when the Illini knocked off the then-No. 17 Hawkeyes. Illinois overcame a 14-point first-half deficit and battled back in the second half to pull out a 73-61 victory.

“What a great win for our program,” Bollant said after the win. “I’m just really, really pleased.”

The impressive win over Iowa did not come without its negatives, though. Senior guard Ivory Crawford went down with a torn meniscus just nine minutes into the first half and will be out for two to six weeks. The Illini have gone 0-3 in her absence.

Without Crawford’s energy and shot-making ability, Illinois is averaging just over 54 points per game during its current losing streak, 15 points off its season scoring average. The Illini lost by just five and seven points against Nebraska and Michigan, respectively, but suffered a 20-point drubbing in their most recent loss against conference-leading Maryland on Sunday.

Freshman guard Amarah Coleman has averaged almost 17 points per game as Crawford’s replacement in the starting lineup, but with Coleman no longer coming off the bench, Illinois has yet to find a consistent contributor from the second unit.

After the loss to Maryland, Bollant said the Illini are missing Crawford on both ends, especially in their “buzz” defensive scheme.

“Ivory is our best player, no question,” Bollant said. “She brings a level of toughness to us, and rebounding and taking care of the ball. Ivory’s really good in the buzz, and I don’t know that we’re quite as good without her on the floor.”

Illinois will be facing the upper to middle tier of the Big Ten in the coming weeks, and is likely without their senior leader until February.

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