Illini women’s basketball blown out again on the road

Before the season, Illinois women’s basketball head coach Matt Bollant’s talking point was the intensity of the practices his team had been going through. It seems that this coaching point has come full circle for the Illini as they prepare for the final four-game stretch of the season, which starts with a trip to Rutgers on Tuesday.

“We’re trying to prepare for a really good opponent and bring a level of intensity for 40 minutes in the game,” Bollant said. “You’ve got to practice right to play right, so we’re trying to practice the right way.”

Tuesday night’s game at Rutgers will be one of firsts for both sides. With Rutgers in its first season as a member of the Big Ten, the two programs have never faced each other. But Illinois will also look to make it a first of another sort: its first set of back-to-back wins since beating Penn State and Iowa in early January. 

To make this happen, the coaching staff has decided to put a lot on the players’ shoulders in terms of their leadership positions. Junior point guard Kyley Simmons and freshman center Chatrice White are viewed as the two who need to take charge on the court. 

“Holding them accountable makes me want to hold myself accountable,” White said. “I know Kyley is going to get after me if I mess up and I’m going to get after her, so I think when we’re holding each other accountable, it makes us fight harder.”  

Taking the intense practices and on-floor leadership into account, winning at Rutgers will still be a tall task for Illinois. The Scarlet Knights come into the game at No. 19 in the nation and currently sit at third in the Big Ten standings. Rutgers has won seven of its last eight games and has three starters averaging more than 15 points per game. The spread-out scoring attack could create havoc for the Illini, who have been struggling with depth all season.

“They’re about as good of an offensive rebounding team as there is in the country, so we’ve got to keep them off the offensive glass,” Bollant said. “Dribble penetration leads to offensive rebounding so it starts with guarding the dribble.” 

Although the matchup is a tough one for Illinois, looking back at its most recent action on the hardwood could serve as a sort of blueprint for Bollant’s squad. In the win at home over Ohio State on Saturday, Illinois forced more turnovers than it committed, out-rebounded the Buckeyes and had four of their players reach double-digit points. While obviously a hard group of tasks to accomplish in two straight games, it might be exactly what the Illini need to pull off an upset on the road. 

But for Simmons, things are simpler than the stats. Pushing through the high intensity practices and taking on even more of a leadership role seem to have a greater purpose for the point guard.

“I just want to win, so whatever’s going to make us win then that’s what I want to do,” Simmons said with a smile. 

Brett can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @Blerner10.