Illinois women’s basketball tops Minnesota

By Joey Figueroa

Maybe all the Illinois women’s basketball team needed was a later start.

Even though tip-off at the State Farm Center on Thursday was an hour later than usual, Illinois (12-11, 3-8 Big Ten) found its groove early on its way to a 95-69 win over Minnesota (17-6, 6-5). The Illini ended their seven-game losing streak with the upset victory over the Gophers, who had received votes in the most recent polls.

Head coach Matt Bollant credits his team’s positive mindset for finally breaking the streak.

“You don’t play like that if your attitude’s not in the right place,” Bollant said. “For a lot of teams — when you’re in a losing streak — it’s easy to point fingers, it’s easy to get selfish, it’s easy to question teammates or coaches. We didn’t have any of that.”

Despite being last in rebounding margin in the Big Ten and going against some of the best rebounders the conference has to offer, the Illini got after it on the boards and outrebounded the Gophers 52-30. That included 23 offensive rebounds, which led to 17 second-chance points. Four different Illini had at least eight rebounds, and three different Illini had at least five offensive rebounds.

While Illinois’ defense and rebounding were firing on all cylinders, its offense may have been the most impressive part of the win. For the first time in two years, three different Illini scored more than 20 points, leading Illinois to its highest scoring total of the season.

Sophomore forward Jacqui Grant led the way with 29 points, tying her career-high, on 12-of-23 shooting. Junior guard Kyley Simmons had 22 points on 6-of-9 from 3-point range, both career bests. Senior guard Ivory Crawford chipped in 23 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds in just her second game back from a torn meniscus in her knee.

With Minnesota’s shot blocking inside, Illinois made it a point to find open shots on the wing and from mid-range. The Illini’s spacing and movement on offense allowed them to pile up 27 total assists on the night.

“I love shooting when I’m open, but I don’t get those looks without my teammates,” Simmons said. “They found me every single time I was open, and I was just lucky enough to make them tonight.”

Behind Grant’s 14 first-half points, Illinois led by 12 at the half. But Minnesota would not go away and rode some hot second-half shooting to pull within three with 10 minutes remaining. The Illini would not fold, though. They outscored the Gophers 35-8 in the final 10 minutes of the game to pull away for good.

Freshman center Chatrice White fouled out for the second game in a row and played just 28 minutes, but Bollant credited her effort while handling 6-foot-5 Minnesota center Amanda Zahui.

“She’s a tough one,” Bollant said of Zahui. “They went to her a lot, found her a lot and (White) really worked her tail off to try to limit her as much as we could.”

Illinois now has more conference wins than it did all of last season, and has the chance to go on a roll with more confidence and Crawford back. Bollant isn’t worried about anything but the task at hand.

“We did a good job controlling today,” Bollant said. “Tomorrow, let’s control tomorrow. We don’t need to get caught up in anything else but tomorrow.”

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