Wittinger stands tall as Illini end losing skid

Wittinger stands tall as Illini end losing skid

CHAMPAIGN — Alex Wittinger took an elbow to the nose in the first quarter while battling for a rebound.

The evidence was the cotton balls that were in her nostrils for the final three minutes of the opening quarter.

But, after a sprained right ankle kept Wittinger out for the entire second half of last Thursday's 72-50 loss at Purdue, it was going to take more than a bloody nose to prevent the 6-foot-2 senior forward on the Illinois women's basketball team from returning Sunday against Wisconsin.

Why? Well, the Badgers had no answers for Wittinger, who scored 24 points on 11-of-16 shooting and added 12 rebounds and three blocks, to carry the Illini to a 78-68 victory over Wisconsin in front of 1,844 fans at State Farm Center, ending Illinois' seasonlong nine game losing streak.

"I got a little elbow," Wittinger said. "You know, (the usual stuff). I just had the mindset of staying aggressive and hunting my shot and making sure I can get open for my teammates to get me the ball."

"My teammates were finding me at good times to face up, and kind of take my player wherever I needed to go," Wittinger continued. "We ran specific plays where that happened, or just in motion, and we did a good job of executing the game plan."

An exasperated Jonathan Tsipis admitted after watching Wittinger wreak havoc for 31 minutes, including 19 in the second half, that his team tried almost everything to stop the Delano, Minn., native.

"We changed people on her. We changed defenses," the third-year Wisconsin coach said. "We tried to get in front of her. ... She imposed her will.

"We tried all three post players on her, Kelly Karlis actually did a good job I thought in the fourth quarter, and the last two minutes of the third quarter we tried to deny her the ball a little bit more, but even in the zone, she did a really good job of finding the open areas. She hurt us more in the fourth quarter with her energy.

"She did a really good job of mixing things up. She got into her jumper. She had really good opportunities where she got two feet in the paint and had us on our back and was able to get the ball up on the backboard and it's a credit to her."

Illinois (10-14, 2-11 Big Ten) protected a 42-40 lead at halftime, accounting for only the second time the Illini held an advantage after 20 minutes in a conference game this season.

Unlike their 64-56 loss to Northwestern on Jan. 27 at State Farm Center, in which the Illini squandered a 34-25 advantage entering the locker room at half, Illinois responded each time Wisconsin (11-13, 2-10) made a run.

After the Badgers pulled ahead 52-51 with 6:35 left in the third quarter, the Illini regained their footing and used the final two minutes of the third quarter to open up a cushion.

Wittinger scored six of the Illini's nine points during that stretch to stake Illinois to a 67-59 advantage entering the final period.

With the 6-foot-2 Karlis at least trying to limit Wittinger's post touches, the baton passed to Brandi Beasley to score for Illinois.

Beasley, who finished with 16 points and nine assists, hit some big shots down the stretch, including a jumper along the baseline that drew a lean from Illinois coach Nancy Fahey after the shot left the 5-foot-7 guard's fingertips.

Fahey could relax, as Beasley's shot dropped through the net to put the Illini ahead 75-64 with 3:29 left in regulation and essentially seal the win.

"The thing about Alex is it's tough to defend her," Beasley said. "She draws a lot of attention, and it kind of just opens up some stuff for other people to stay aggressive and hunt their shot, as well."

Ali Andrews (12 points) and Arieal Scott (10 points) joined Beasley and Wittinger in double figures for the Illini, who outrebounded the Badgers — the 25th-ranked rebounding team in the country entering Sunday's tilt at 42.8 rebounds per game.

Illinois outpaced Wisconsin 41-38 on the boards despite holding a 27-16 disadvantage at halftime.

"When the rebounding margin changes that significantly, especially when you get offensive rebounds, it brings a home-team crowd into the game," said Tsipis, whose team was led by Marsha Howard's 19 points and seven rebounds. "It can deflate a team, especially when it's deep in the shot clock because all of the sudden you're guarding for 45-50 seconds consecutively."

With the weight of Illinois' losing streak off her team's shoulders, Fahey, who was asked to give an opening statement, had a one-word response.

"Yay," she blurted out.

Fahey expanded later.

"I am really happy for the kids," said Fahey, a Wisconsin graduate, who added it was special to sing the Illinois alma mater in front of the home fans after a win again. "We kept knowing that we are getting better every day.

"We wanted to win. ... I was really proud of how we played for 40 minutes, and in particular the fourth quarter, just walking to the huddle and (the players) having a different look of we're not letting this one go."

For Wittinger, it was the first time in any of her four seasons that Illinois has reached double-digit wins. The Illini had won nine games in each of her previous three seasons. Wittinger wasn't making a big deal of it, even if it meant a Minnesota native beating a rival school from a neighboring state.

It was also Illinois' first Big Ten home win since Jan. 15, 2017, when the Illini beat Nebraska.

"A win's a win for any game, so I'm just glad we got the W," Wittinger said.

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