Illini's Courtney Joens is throwing her name into the mix

Illini's Courtney Joens is throwing her name into the mix

CHAMPAIGN — Brandi Beasley and Alex Wittinger are the two names at the top of the scouting report when opposing coaches formulate a game plan for how to defend the Illinois women's basketball team.

Beasley, after all, is the Illini's leading scorer through four Big Ten games, averaging 12.3 points, while Wittinger's 11.3 points per game against conference foes ranks second on the team.

Third on that list? Enter Courtney Joens.

Joens' role has perhaps been the most fluid of any of the 13 players who have appeared in a game this season for Illinois. Joens started the Illini's first six games, scoring 7.0 points per game while averaging 19.5 minutes. Then, Illinois coach Nancy Fahey elected to make a switch to the starting five, replacing Joens with Arieal Scott against Eastern Michigan and Indiana State, only to move the Iowa City, Iowa, native back into the starting lineup for the Illini's final three nonconference games against Murray State, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and Missouri.

But, after the shift to the conference season, Joens has come exclusively off the bench. The change has benefited the 5-foot-10 junior guard, who has averaged 10.8 points against Big Ten foes.

Joens scored 16 points during a 68-45 loss at Northwestern on Dec. 31 and followed that up with 10 points in a 66-62 win at then-No. 12 Minnesota last Sunday before adding another 13 points during Wednesday night's 71-60 defeat at home against Rutgers.

Entering today's 1 p.m. game at Penn State (8-7, 1-3 Big Ten), Joens has logged 22 minutes per game and knocked down 8 of her 16 three-point attempts in the Illini's four Big Ten games.

"She's been playing really well in games and in practice," Fahey said. "I am happy for her because that's a kid that spends a lot of time in the gym working on her shot. She's got this confidence and you can see it in the way she plays. It's beyond her shooting when you see how hard that kid plays diving after loose balls and doing whatever we ask her to do. So, she's given us a good punch beyond the scoring."

If not for Joens, Illinois (9-6, 1-3) might not have been able to stage a comeback attempt against Rutgers, which rolled to a 23-4 lead during the first quarter and threatened to run away with its seventh straight victory.

Joens had other ideas.

Subbing in for J-Naya Ephraim with the Illini down by 19 early in the second quarter, Joens supplied a spark on both ends of the floor, jumping in for three steals and scoring seven points in an eight-minute stretch that chopped Illinois' deficit to 39-29 late in the first half.

"Over the past couple games, I've built up a lot of confidence with my shooting, so that's helped, and just my teammates being able to get me the ball," Joens said. "I just try to come in and bring a lot of energy and try to play as hard as I can and help in any way I can.

"Being able to step up and hit shots is huge. Other people will be open, too. Once I start hitting them (from outside), inside will be open, too."

The Scarlet Knights' lead again ballooned to 19 points by the end of the third quarter, but Jones again brought Illinois back to life in the fourth quarter. But by then, the clock was the Illini's biggest adversary.

Joens' transition three-pointer and knocking down three straight free throws after Rutgers fouled her beyond the three-point arc punctuated an 11-2 run in the final three minutes of regulation. Illinois trailed 68-60 with 57 seconds left in regulation thanks to Joens but wasn't able to pull any closer.

"Until the (final) buzzer sounds, we're not stopping," Fahey said. "When you're trying to build something and change a culture, there's no stop. There was a time I don't know if this team (makes it close).

"It really goes back to that first quarter. Against really good teams, and Rutgers is good, it's got to be 40 (minutes). ... You've got to lock in on a lot of things. You make a little mistake here. You don't box out one time. Those points add up."