By TIM SINCLAIR
Did you ever dream as a kid that someone was chasing you and, try as you might, you couldn't run away fast enough? My particular pursuer was always Captain Hook from "Peter Pan" and, as I clamored to escape his creepy beard and hand-turned-hook, I felt as though I was running underwater or through quicksand. I was me ... but in slow motion.
For years, my impression of women's basketball was much the same. It was men's basketball ... but in slow motion. Or underwater. Or with giant ankle weights. To me, the girl's game was gentler, quieter, and much, much slower than the one I had grown to love. Final scores were similar to those of an exciting college football contest — in the 40s or 50s — and any lead greater than 10 was considered a blowout.
Imagine my surprise, then, sitting at the scorer's table for the past two Fighting Illini women's exhibition games. Last Tuesday, the Illini blew out Indianapolis' Marian University 89-37 in a contest that was as fast and frenetic as any men's game I have ever seen. This week, the girls easily handled Chicago's Concordia University, 120-29. Coach Matt Bollant's pressure defense and run-and-gun offense was not only exciting to watch but, as the team's new public address announcer, it kept me very, very busy. If I said Karisma Penn's and Alexis Smith's names once, I said them 20 times each.
Two of the guys who sit to my left have worked the scorer's table at Assembly Hall for seven and 18 years, respectively, and neither one can believe the change. Against Marian, when the Illini were up 30 points before halftime, I looked over as if to ask, "Is this normal?" All they could do was shrug their shoulders and smile. Enough said.
Don't get me wrong, two games aren't enough to predict an entire season, especially when they are exhibition matchups. However, nine of Illinois' 19 losses last season were by seven points or less. Two were in overtime. And one (Green Bay) was at the hands of the man who is now the Illini head coach. There is no way this year's team isn't seven points better than last year's squad. From what these ladies displayed against Marian and Concordia, they could be 20 points ahead of a year ago.
The 2012-2013 edition of the Fighting Illini women's basketball team is not one you will recognize. They are not an older version of your high school girls' team. They are not a slow, less-exciting version of the men's team. And they're certainly not the team you've seen on the floor at the Hall for the past four or five years. (A friend of mine told me recently he almost didn't recognize one of last year's starters because of how "in shape" she was this season.)
With the regular season beginning at 2 p.m. today against Evansville, it would be worth your time to check out the Illini's new approach and attitude. With free parking and $5 tickets, you don't have much to lose. After finishing 9th and 11th in the Big Ten the last two years, respectively, the girls don't have much to lose either. And they're playing like it.
Tim Sinclair is part of WBGL radio's morning show and a public address announcer for many Illini sporting events. You'll hear him throughout the year at Illinois women's basketball, wrestling, softball, gymnastics and swimming events.