CHAMPAIGN — Sweep Wisconsin in the season series.
Win an NCAA tournament game.
The formula has worked before for the Illinois women’s basketball team, albeit more than a decade ago.
Matt Bollant’s squad hopes it works again after Monday night’s 60-53 win against the Badgers at the Assembly Hall.
“The (NCAA tournament) talk has already started,” said Karisma Penn, who led all scorers with 26 points to go along with a game-high 14 rebounds and three steals. “We have four more games in the regular season left, so we definitely need to focus on each game, and with three games this week with about a 48-hour turnaround, it’s going to be tough. But we’re ready to step up to the challenge.”
Playing their first game in more than a week, the Illini knocked off the Badgers for the second time in 15 days. The last time Illinois — which is 8-4 in the Big Ten for the first time since the 1999-2000 season — beat Wisconsin twice in the same season came during the aforementioned 1999-2000 campaign. That particular season was the last time Illinois won an NCAA tournament game, defeating Utah 73-58 in the first round of the 2000 tournament.
Since then, Illinois has made the NCAA tournament once (2003). But Bollant appears to have Illinois on the verge of a possible berth. Granted, this is before the Illini travel to play conference leader and No. 7 Penn State on Wednesday.
Monday kicked off a five-game stretch Illinois will play in the next 12 days before the Big Ten tournament arrives March 7-10 at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates. The win against Wisconsin moved Illinois into a three-way tie with Purdue and Michigan for third place in the Big Ten, setting up a possible bye into the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals for Illinois. But Bollant said it’s a little early to talk to his team too much about those implications — yet.
“Obviously everybody wants that,” Bollant said. “When you have to play four games in four days, that bye in the first round is really valuable. Getting this one tonight was really important.”
“That’s unheard of for us,” she said. “We always go into the Big Ten tournament at the bottom, and to be in the conversation (of getting a bye) is nice.”
Illinois held a comfortable 41-27 lead with 15:15 left in the second half after a steal and layup by Alexis Smith before Wisconsin closed the gap with a 13-2 run during the next five minutes to trim the Illini’s lead to 43-40 with 10:11 remaining. But Illinois countered with a 17-3 run and held the Badgers scoreless for more than six minutes to prevail.
Illinois forced 27 turnovers, a key reason why it was able to overcome some poor shooting (21 of 66 for 31.8 percent) and ragged play at times throughout the game. Adrienne GodBold complemented Penn’s superb evening with 16 points, seven rebounds and four steals, while Taylor Tuck added seven points off the bench.
“I tell our team, ‘Defense gets off the bus every night,’ ” Bollant said. “We shot (poorly), yet we were up 10 or 12 in the last couple of minutes. That says a lot about our defense and the energy we played with. We didn’t always do a great job of playing with the lead. We haven’t been in that situation a whole lot, so it’s a good learning experience for us.”
Monday’s win means Illinois won’t finish below .500, and while it didn’t seal an NCAA berth, it went a way toward the ultimate goal. Belief in its abilities is not lacking for Illinois in late February, an aspect that wasn’t always true of recent teams.
“We have to take a step back and not get too confident,” GodBold said. “Winning these games is building our confidence, but we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. That’s difficult, but we’re doing a pretty good job of it.”