Bollant, team vow to fight until end
CHAMPAIGN — A tumultuous offseason, rife with allegations of verbal abuse of players, medical mistreatment and racism by the Illinois coaching staff, gave way to a successful team trip to France, a positive preseason and a 7-1 start for the Illini.
The lone loss came against a Miami team that would ultimately find its way into the Top 25 for the bulk of the season. And Illinois felt it should have won the game, leading by eight heading into the fourth quarter.
Two games later, freshman guard and second-leading scorer CeCe Rice went down with a knee injury that’s ultimately cost her the rest of the season.
News came a few days later, at Christmas of all times, that transfer forward Simone Law would not play this season — her own knee issues costing her the end of her basketball career.
Illinois is just 2-18 after that promising start following Wednesday night’s 71-43 loss to No. 20 Michigan State in front of a blizzard-light announced crowd of 1,395 that was closer to 1,000 shy of that. A pair of Big Ten wins against Wisconsin stand as the only victories.
The end of Matt Bollant’s fourth season at the Illinois helm is fast approaching, with only Saturday’s regular-season finale at Iowa and the Big Ten tournament remaining.
The Illini are threatening to finish with fewer than 10 wins for the second time under Bollant. And after his first team went 19-14 and reached the WNIT quarterfinals, Illinois hasn’t finished better than 10th in the Big Ten. Not to mention the specter of a $10 million lawsuit filed by seven former players — three of whom transferred after the 2014-15 season — still hanging over the program.
“I’ve got to control what I can control,” Bollant said in regard to his job security. “We’re going to be better next year. We’re trying to recruit really hard and get better players. We’ve got to do a better job of bringing in more talent.
“Obviously, the injuries hurt us. And the offseason. It was a rough offseason, and obviously we can’t go through that again. I think if we stay together, with what we have coming in, we’re going to take a big step next year.”
Bollant’s future at Illinois will ultimately be decided by new athletic director Josh Whitman. The former Illini football player was officially introduced Feb. 18 — less than 24 hours after Illinois suffered its worst loss of the season in a 117-74 defeat at No. 5 Ohio State.
Bollant has two points he wants to get across to his new boss.
“That we’ve changed the culture as far as how we practice and the way they carry themselves on and off the court,” Bollant said. “(And) be patient and give us time to change it on the court as well.”
One thing that hasn’t changed for Illinois this season as the losses have piled up is the team’s effort. Bollant sees it. Illini fans and opposing coaches, too.
“The coaches still try to keep it in perspective for us just how far we’ve come despite all the adversity we’ve gone through before the season and with (Rice) going down,” sophomore center Chatrice White said. “A lot of outside people wouldn’t be able to tell just how much we’ve grown and how much stuff we’ve actually had to go through to get here.”
Opposing fans have seen the same from the Illinois coaches.
“A couple of the fans from Ohio State came up and said, ‘You know, we’re really impressed that you didn’t sit down even though your team was not playing well,’ ” Bollant said. “I stayed up and coached the whole time. That’s what our kids deserve. I ask them to give great effort and great heart, and I need to do that as well and our staff needs to do that even when things don’t go as well.
“I’ve just focused on these kids. I think about (seniors Sarah Hartwell and Kyley Simmons), and they deserve everything from me.”
The Illini are still giving their everything for Bollant, the coaching staff and their teammates. Sophomore guard Brooke Kissinger and freshman guard Jaelyne Kirkpatrick said anything less isn’t in their nature.
“I think we’re all fighters,” Kissinger said. “It’s not in any of our bloods to walk on the court and expect to lose. We’re going to fight to the end, and if it doesn’t go our way, it doesn’t go our way.”
Not that it’s been easy as game after game has ended with the Illini on the wrong side of the final score.
“Not going to lie, it’s been tough,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s not easy, especially given the adversity we had to face coming into this season. But I do think, as a program, we’ve shifted our perspective and focused on the things we can control.
“I’m glad that people can recognize that we haven’t given up on the season, and we won’t give up on the season. That’s not the kind of people we are, and that’s not the kind of program we want to be.”
Illinois held a brief lead midway through the third quarter after trailing by 18 in the second quarter and was down just three heading into the fourth quarter before getting outscored 27-2 by Michigan State in the final 10 minutes.
What it means
The Illini haven’t given up on this season — a point the players re-emphasized after Wednesday night’s loss — but with just one regular-season game and the Big Ten tournament remaining, Illinois is ultimately playing for 2016-17.
Illinois (9-19, 2-15 Big Ten) wraps up its regular season Saturday at Iowa. The Hawkeyes (17-12, 7-10) have lost five of their last seven and eight of their last 12, but they could be a serious challenge for the length-deprived Illini with 11 players 6-foot or taller.