HOFFMAN ESTATES — Matt Bollant has been making the case for weeks that his team deserves a spot in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
The Illinois coach did so again late Thursday afternoon after Game 2 of the Big Ten tournament at the Sears Centre Arena.
This time, however, Bollant couldn’t discount the impact of the latest loss for his suddenly slumping squad: a stunning 58-57 setback against 11th-seeded Wisconsin.
“It certainly clouds that tremendously,” Bollant said, “but again, I don’t make those decisions. (I’ll) have our team ready to play in the postseason.”
The question now is, which postseason tournament. NCAA? WNIT? The Illini, who fell to 16-13 after losing for the fourth time in five games, won’t learn the answer until March 18 — Selection Monday.
In the meantime, sixth-seeded Illinois will be left to ponder what went wrong in the first round of what was supposed to be an NCAA resume-building conference tournament.
“It is difficult,” Illini redshirt junior guard Amber Moore said. “We knew we could make a run in this tournament.”
Moore nearly salvaged a win for her team with a clutch three-pointer with 42 seconds left. Her shot capped a furious 13-0 Illini rally that wiped out a 10-point Wisconsin advantage, lifting Illinois into a 57-54 lead.
“When Amber hit the three, I felt good about our chances,” Bollant said.
As it turned out, however, those were the last points Illinois would score. And Wisconsin, which went more than five minutes without a point, made sure to capitalize on a pair of Illini fouls in the remaining time.
Capitalize, as they had done all game. Wisconsin (12-18) finished 21 of 21 from the foul line — the most makes ever in a Big Ten tournament game by a team that was perfect on its free throw attempts.
First, Badgers freshman Tessa Cichy sank two free throws after being fouled on the inbounds play following Moore’s trey, cutting the margin to 57-56.
Then, after Illini center Karisma Penn missed a jumper with 16 seconds left, Wisconsin quickly called a timeout to set up a final play. No surprise, the ball ended up in the hands of the Badgers’ leading scorer, All-Big Ten third-teamer Morgan Paige, who drove the lane and was fouled by Penn with three seconds left.
Penn, who fouled out on the play, didn’t argue the call.
“It was a foul,” the UI senior said. “I don’t think it was a bad call.”
Paige, who was 8 of 8 at the line to that point, remained perfect, calmly hitting both attempts to put Wisconsin ahead 58-57.
And this time even Moore, who finished with 13 points, couldn’t bail out Illinois. With Illinois going the length of the court, Moore caught a pass, hurried across halfcourt and launched a shot in time to beat the buzzer. It banged hard high off the backboard and caromed back to the floor.
With that, Ivory Crawford (team-high 14 points) and her Illini teammates were forced to pack up and head home from the Big Ten tournament far earlier than they’d ever imagined.
“It just didn’t end how we wanted it,” she said.