CHAMPAIGN — It’s been a puzzling journey through the Big Ten race for this Illinois women’s basketball team.
What transpired Sunday might be the biggest head-scratcher yet.
Facing an opponent it had pummeled by 18 points 10 days earlier, the Illini started flat and finished with a shell of a foul-depleted lineup on the floor in a 62-58 loss to Northwestern at the Assembly Hall.
“Really disappointing loss,” UI coach Matt Bollant said. “I’m frustrated with our team, especially the first half. ... To come out here with the lack of energy and lack of excitement to play in the first half was shocking.”
Shocking surely would be too strong a word to use in describing how Illinois (10-8) can be 3-0 on the Big Ten road and — now — 0-3 at home against conference foes. But certainly it is as puzzling as the Illini’s Jekyll-and-Hyde performances this season against a Northwestern team (9-9) that entered the day with an 0-4 conference record.
“We just weren’t focused,” Adrienne GodBold — one of three Illini starters to foul out — said. “We came in thinking that Northwestern would just lay down. We didn’t have the energy that we were supposed to have at the jump ball.”
Even then, Illinois trailed merely 25-20 at halftime. Not that the score held any comfort for Bollant.
“To hold them to 25 points and still be down by five at half, that’s ridiculous,” he said.
Bollant — and a crowd of 2,495 fans — might have seen a scrappier Illini team in the second half, but one thing didn’t change: crooked shooting.
Shooting under 29 percent in each half, Illinois finished with a season-worst 26.2 percent (16 of 61) from the field.
No Illini starter shot better than 33.3 percent, and the three UI reserves who got into the game were a combined 0 for 7.
“Not one of our players shot a good percentage,” Bollant said.
If that wasn’t enough to overcome, Illinois lost three starters to fouls during the final 71/2 minutes. Point guard Alexis Smith was the first to foul out. Center Karisma Penn (15 points) was next with a little less than 51/2 minutes left. Finally, GodBold (21 points, nine rebounds) was forced to take the slow walk to the bench with 2:01 remaining.
When GodBold fouled out, Illinois was clinging to a 58-56 lead.
Illinois would not score another point, missing its final six shots from the field as well as two free throws.
In fact, the Illini did not convert any of its last nine field goal attempts after GodBold scored on a jumper with just over four minutes left.
“Having three of your best players on the bench, that doesn’t help you,” Bollant said. “We’re trying to call sets and get kids the right shots, but it’s a little bit hard when some of the right kids are sitting on the bench.”
Since regaining academic eligibility at the start of the second semester, GodBold has led Illinois in scoring in five of seven games. The senior guard also has fouled out six times.
“I tend to be overly aggressive,” GodBold said. “That’s how I get my fouls. And fouling in the backcourt and not making smart decisions.”
Penn, who is averaging a double-double in points and rebounds, also can have foul issues. The 6-foot-2 senior fouled out for the fifth time this season.
“Some of our lack of discipline on fouls hurt us so we didn’t have the right kids on the floor down the stretch,” Bollant said.
In the locker room afterward, according to GodBold, she and her teammates agreed to hold a future players-only meeting.
“We’re going to get together off the court before our next game and try to figure some stuff out, and get on the same page and be prepared at jump ball,” she said. “As a team we’ve got to figure out whatever it is everyone has to do get ready for the game.”
A game that likely will gnaw at Bollant for a while.
“Let one slip away today,” he said grimly. “Hopefully it’s a lesson learned.”