Hard losses can teach Illini lesson

Hard losses can teach Illini lesson

INDIANAPOLIS – Two parties. Two invitations lost in the mail.

The University of Illinois women's basketball team is getting tired of being left out.

As Iowa celebrated its Big Ten tournament title Monday, the Illini left the RCA Dome court. In a hurry.

As the Iowa players grabbed their trophy and championship T-shirts from commissioner Jim Delany, the Illini took showers and changed. In a hurry.

As the Hawkeyes met the press, the Illini met the bus driver. They were going back to Champaign. In a hurry.

It was supposed to be the Illini on the court with the commissioner, junior forward Nicole Vasey said. The nets, T-shirts and trophy belonged at Illinois.

"We believed it," Vasey said. "We knew that we could do it. We just fell short."

That makes two important games in eight days where they fell short. The last came Feb. 23, when Illinois had a chance to own the Big Ten title by itself. But Purdue spoiled the Assembly Hall party of 16,000 and the Illini had to split the crown, three ways.

The big-game losses don't fit second-year coach Theresa Grentz's master plan. She wants the Illini to become America's team. But first, they've got to rule the Midwest.

One loss doesn't end the idea. It just sidetracks it a bit.

"This is great preparation for them," Iowa coach Angie Lee said. "Now they have been there in an essence."

Room to improve

At times on Monday, Lee said, Illinois looked like a team that wasn't used to being there.

"You could just see that it was a frustration," Lee said.

The frustration was at its worst as the Illini walked back to the locker room. The Big Ten title was there for the taking and they let it get away.

"You would expect it to be unhappy because we worked so hard for this," Vasey said.

It's not a total loss for the Illini. In five days, the NCAA tournament pairings will be announced and they're getting a bid. When the Illini hear the good news, they'll remember Monday's empty-handed walk off the court.

If the goal is to become America's team, the next tournament is the important one.

Nobody on the East Coast thinks much about the Big Ten champion. But win an NCAA title and you get lunch with the president or a spot on SportsCenter.

"I think we just need to go out and play our game, win," Illini freshman Tauja Catchings said. "Everybody loves teams that win."

America's team needs to start with winners. Catchings and freshman teammate Katie Coleman lost nine games in four years of high school. First year in college, they're winning again.

"We're just not used to losing," Catchings said. "We don't like it."

And Grentz really doesn't like it, Catchings said.

"She's only been at Illinois for a little while and she's sick of hearing Iowa is the best. Or Michigan's the best. Or whatever's the best," Catchings said. "She wants it to be Illinois is the best when people talk about women's basketball."

Potential is great

Debbie Antonelli thinks it can happen at Illinois. The former North Carolina State player served as analyst on ESPN2's telecast Monday.

"I don't think it sounds crazy at all coming out of Theresa Grentz's mouth," Antonelli said. "She's been there. She knows. She's achieved at every level."

Antonelli sees great women's basketball every week as analyst on Southeastern Conference games. It was Illinois' win against the SEC's Arkansas that gave it national credibility, she said.

"Theresa's come in with a plan and she's stuck to it," Antonelli said.

It takes more than a coach to build a national power. The school needs a commitment to winning and the resources to make it happen.

"Illinois has taken the steps," Antonelli said. "They want to be successful."

A loss or two won't hurt.

"They're going to expect to be back here next year and they should be," Antonelli said.

Bob Asmussen is a News-Gazette staff writer.

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