Illinois women’s basketball wins in Play 4Kay game

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Illinois’ Ivory Crawford attempts to outmaneuver her defender during the game against Ohio State at the State Farm Center on Saturday. The Illini won 66-55.

By Joey Figueroa

In front of what might have been its largest home crowd of the season, the Illinois women’s basketball team pulled off a 66-55 victory over Ohio State on Saturday.

Fans piled into State Farm Center on a cold Valentine’s Day afternoon to watch the Illini play in their annual Play 4Kay charity game, and Illinois did not disappoint. Rocking all-pink jerseys in honor of breast cancer awareness, the Illini took a balanced and disciplined approach to pick up their fourth conference win of the season.

“(It was a) great win for our team and our program,” head coach Matt Bollant said. “After a couple tough losses, we needed this one.”

Illinois (13-13, 4-10 Big Ten) had lost its previous two games heading into Saturday. On Friday, senior guard Ivory Crawford said she had a good feeling about the matchup with the Buckeyes (17-9, 9-5) and took it into her hands to bring the Illini back into the win column. Following a four-point first half, Crawford took over the second half on both ends of the floor.

“In close games, you need players to step up and make plays,” Bollant said. “There were several plays where the game was on the line where she just drove it hard and made big plays for us.”

Crawford finished the game with 18 points, five assists, three rebounds and three steals while taking it upon herself to slow down the nation’s leading scorer, Kelsey Mitchell. Mitchell put up 19 points, but needed 20 shots to do so. Illinois’ swarming buzz defense also forced Mitchell to cough up seven of Ohio State’s 19 turnovers.

Mitchell came into Saturday’s game averaging close to 26 points per game, so Illinois’ game plan was to slow her down from the start. Crawford said she just tried to focus on her own game, though.

“I don’t look at other people’s games like that,” Crawford said. “You’ve just got to look at yourself and look at your team.”

After trailing 30-29 at the half, the Illini came out of the locker room on the attack. Illinois built an eight-point lead behind 3-pointers by four different players to begin the half. The Buckeyes pulled within one with six minutes remaining, but junior guard Kyley Simmons answered with a long three to end the 11-2 Ohio State run. The Illini defense clamped down to allow just two points in the final five minutes, and Illinois pulled away for the final time.

While it was clear Ohio State relied on Mitchell’s scoring late, Bollant was happy with Illinois’ balanced attack — four different Illini finished the game with double-digit scoring.

“Every game’s different, but certainly, we love having balance,” Bollant said. “You’re harder to guard when you have different players that can step up and make plays.”

Freshman center Chatrice White registered her fifth double-double of the season and now sits third all-time on Illinois’ freshman scoring list.

With Saturday’s victory, Illinois has doubled its conference win total from a season ago and still has four games remaining on the Big Ten schedule.

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