But three freshmen give Bollant's club a glimmer of hope.
CHAMPAIGN — Matt Bollant had given plenty of hints recently that changes were coming for his slumping Illinois women’s basketball team.
On Wednesday night, the second-year Illini coach showed just how serious he was about shaking things up.
When Illinois took the floor to open its Big Ten game against No. 24 Michigan State at State Farm Center, three Illini freshmen made their first college starts.
And these weren’t merely cameo appearances for Taylor Gleason, Sarah Livingston and walk-on Ashley McConnell, who each played between 29 and 36 minutes.
Their performances weren’t enough to keep the Spartans from leaving town with a 69-53 victory or prevent Illinois from losing its fourth straight.
But Bollant afterward sounded like a coach determined to reward players who scrap on defense and who exhibit energy with more playing time. Even heretofore freshman reserves.
“I was pleased with the way they fought (Wednesday) and so they’ll probably get another opportunity this weekend (at Minnesota) and (we’ll) go from there,” Bollant said. “And we’ll see how they respond.
“The biggest thing is we want competitors. We want kids that are going to ... fight and want to play defense.”
The Illini coach said he saw that in the freshman trio, who joined juniors Ivory Crawford (20 points, seven rebounds) and Nia Oden in the starting lineup.
“They were put in a tough environment to start a game against a ranked team, a team that’s hungry coming in here that we had beaten before,” Bollant said. “And I really thought that they played with a lot of fight and ... defended as a team, which was great to see.”
The lineup shakeup put regulars Amber Moore, Alexis Smith and Sarah Hartwell in the role of reserves.
“We’ll keep evaluating,” Bollant said. “(We’re) trying to build for the future and do the right things for the program, and I thought we took a good step (Wednesday).”