Illini women dig deep for win
CHAMPAIGN – Point guard Krista Reinking sat at the end of the bench in street clothes, her sprained right ankle tightly wrapped.
Forward Ashley Berggren, in uniform and in full health, had joined her. Again. Twenty-four seconds into the second half, Berggren picked up foul No. 4. This after playing only nine minutes during the first half due to three fouls.
If ever the depth of this University of Illinois women's basketball team would be put to the test, this was it.
As things turned out, the grades were in long before the final horn had sounded Sunday afternoon at Huff Hall. Give the Illini an A-plus. They aced this one.
"Our players really stepped it up," coach Theresa Grentz after her Illini overcame the absence of two of their top three scorers to defeat Indiana 90-81 before a school-record crowd of 4,050.
The victory kept the Illini, 14-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten Conference, within a half-game of first-place Michigan State. The Spartans defeated Michigan 76-67 on Sunday at East Lansing.
The UI's cry for help in the absence of Reinking and Berggren was answered by many. There was starting center Alicia Sheeler scoring 15 points and grabbing eight rebounds while playing all but six minutes.
There was guard Katie Coleman coming off the bench to contribute 14 points, including eight in fiercely contested first half that ended with Illinois ahead 36-33.
There was starting forward Tauja Catchings scoring 12 points, and reserve center Casey Leonhardt contributing 11 points and six rebounds.
But no Illini answered the call more emphatically than Melissa Parker. Starting in place of Reinking, the freshman guard responded with a career-high 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting with six assists.
"I thought the key for them was the play of Parker," coach Jim Izard said after his Hoosiers, 10-7 and 3-4, lost to Illinois for the fourth straight time. "I thought that was going to be a bonus for us, having a freshman in that spot with Reinking out."
Said Grentz: "That was the game of her career, and it couldn't have come on a better day."
Actually, make that the half-game of her career. By halftime, there was no hint that Parker would play so big a role in this one. Although the Elgin native did have four assists by then, she otherwise was quiet offensively, going 1 of 2 from the field for two points.
Parker shattered the quiet almost immediately in the second half, scoring Illinois' first basket and proceeding to account for eight of her team's first 10 points of the period and 14 of the first 24. By then, Illinois was ahead 60-50 and well on its way toward building its lead to as many as 21 points.
By the time Parker departed for good with 5:18 left, she had scored 19 second-half points and the Illini were ahead by 19, 76-57.
The performance was a welcome boost for Parker, who entered shooting just 33.3 percent from the field while averaging 6.1 points. After starting the first 16 games of the season, the5-foot-9 freshman opened Game 17 on the bench Friday night at Penn State.
"I've been struggling in my game," said Parker. "I just knew I had a job to do and that's what Coach brought me here to do and I just played my game."
No small part of Illinois' game throughout this season has been rebounding. The Illini rank second in the Big Ten in both rebounding average and rebounding margin.
But the Illini outdid themselves on this day, grabbing 57 to exceed their average by almost 14. A whopping 33 of those came at the offensive end, Illinois amazingly finishing with nine more offensive rebounds than defensive.
"That might be a national record," Izard said of the UI's 33 offensive boards. "They were really active on the glass, getting stick-backs."
Illinois scored more than one-third of its points – 32 – on such second-chance opportunities.
The absence of foul-troubled center Quacy Barnes for 10 minutes of the first half didn't make Indiana's rebounding task any easier. The 6-5 Barnes is the Hoosiers' only starter taller than 5-11.
"We've got to keep our starters on the floor," lamented Izard, who then commented on an Illini frontcourt that's as physical as they come in the Big Ten.
"They're not only big (tall), they're big," he said. "They take up a lot of space."
As the second half wore on, there was even space on the floor for the foul-troubled Berggren. She re-entered with 10:56 left and made her presence greatly felt despite finishing with a season-low three points. In 19 minutes, Berggren led all rebounders with 10 and tied Parker for the game high in assists.
"Berggren absolutely is playing the best basketball I've ever seen her play," Grentz said.