FARMER CITY — Kaila Simpson didn’t grow up with hoop dreams.
“I never thought I’d play basketball,” Simpson said.
Until she was accepted at Urbana University High as an eighth-grader, Simpson kept her distance from the sport. Even then, she needed some urging to give it a shot.
“A P.E. teacher said anyone over 5-10 has to join the basketball team,” Simpson said.
What was most appealing to the novice was a no-cut policy that meant she’d be guaranteed a full year to develop and see what she thought.
Five years after Simpson started playing basketball, she’s now starting on the Uni High girls’ varsity basketball team.
Simpson and Emma Hoyer were the catalysts Monday as the Illineks completed a 3-0 season sweep of Judah Christian with a 38-24 triumph in a first-round Class 1A regional tournament opener.
“They’re a mismatch for a lot of teams,” Uni High coach Allie Lindemann said. “Not many teams can match up with two 6-footers.”
Uni High’s halftime lead was 15-14, but thanks to Simpson and Hoyer, the Illineks were dominating in another aspect of the game. Uni High collected 21 of the 23 first-half rebounds.
“Coach kept telling us the importance of offensive rebounds, and I took it upon myself to do that,” Simpson said. “I don’t shoot much, but rebounding is something I can do.”
She learned the tricks of positioning and tenacity from one of the best. Hoyer has captured more than 1,000 rebounds in her career.
“Emma got me interested and helped coach me,” Simpson said.
Both seniors outrebounded Judah on Monday. Simpson pulled down eight of her game-high 15 rebounds on the offensive end. Hoyer had five of her 14 boards on the offensive end. Three of the rebounds resulted in putbacks that helped her score a game-high 22 points.
“Rebounding, that was the killer,” Judah Christian coach Chris Chambers said. “We got away with it the first half, but in the second half they converted.”
At game’s end, Uni High’s rebounding edge was 40-12.
The win sends the fifth-seeded Illineks into a Wednesday semifinal game against top-seeded Fisher.
“It’s a challenge, but we’re ready for it,” Lindemann said. “We can hang with them if we’re playing for 32 minutes.”
Kristina Lee kept Judah Christian (13-13) in contention throughout the first half. She scored all of her team’s first 12 points, twice hitting three-pointers. An 8-foot shot by Hoyer lifted Uni High (10-17) into the lead for good, 18-15, with 5:16 left in the third quarter.
Though Uni’s first two wins against the Tribe were by margins of 14 and 15 points, Simpson expected a more competitive contest in the third matchup.
“We knew they’d come back really strong,” she said. “It’s always fun to play them because they’re so nice.”
Chambers said he has a freshman who is similar to where Simpson was a few years back.
“Cara Nash (freshman) is one of the new players we had out this year who’d never played before,” Chambers said, “and they were big factors. Cara has given us a huge spark in the last 10 games and led us in rebounding several times.”
Against Uni High, Nash and Leslee Chambers were Judah’s top rebounders with three apiece. Lee scored 19 of Judah’s 24 points.
The outcome wasn’t what the Tribe wanted, but Chambers said the game met another of his expectations.
“We talked about playing with a lot of heart and extra effort, and defensively, we did that,” he said.