On your toes, Illini
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The location's different. The arena and the opponent and the native dialect, too.
But this is no unfamiliar journey the University of Illinois women's basketball team embarks on this weekend.
Unlike a year ago, these Illini have been this way before in the NCAA tournament. While the Sweet 16 may not yet be well-trampled turf for Illinois, neither is it foreign terrain.
The Illini's first such visit last March in Iowa City, Iowa, resulted in a quick but hardly shame-faced exit. Matched against top-ranked and undefeated Connecticut, upstart Illinois threw a mighty scare into the Huskies, who had to scramble to pull off a 78-73 victory.
A year later, the Illini are regional semifinalists again, once-tested and presumably wiser from the experience. On Saturday night, they'll take on Sweet 16 veteran North Carolina in the Mideast Regional at Vanderbilt University's Memorial Gymnasium. Awaiting the winner on Monday night is the survivor of Saturday's opener between two-time defending national champion Tennessee and Rutgers.
What must No. 16 Illinois do to take another step or two? What will it take for the third-seeded Illini to progress into NCAA territory that, for them and every previous UI team, is so far uncharted?
Here are five must-dos:
1.) Don't be fooled by North Carolina's sorry performance at the Assembly Hall.
Let's be blunt: the Tar Heels were horrible in the opener of the State Farm-Tip-Off Classic in Champaign on Nov. 23. They scored all of 12 points in the first half and shot 27 percent (18 of 68) in losing to Florida 68-48. But if the Illini's first image of North Carolina is the one they carry into Saturday's game, they're in for a rude awakening. The Tar Heels are 26-6, ranked seventh in the country, and winners of 13 of their last 15. They also won the postseason tournament in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a league that produced five NCAA qualifiers and has three members in the Sweet 16. Just to be safe, Illini coaches should burn the videotape of UNC's Nov. 23 debacle.
2.) Remember, this is a neutral court.
Illinois' late-season struggles on the road have been well documented. By losing at Wisconsin and Purdue on the final weekend of the regular season, the Illini fell to 4-6 on opponents' homecourts. What Illinois should keep in mind, though, is that they've felt right at home on neutral courts. Their only loss in five such games this season was in the Big Ten tournament at Indianapolis to Penn State. Of course, if the Illini find themselves in the regional final on Monday night against nearby Tennessee, Memorial Gym won't seem so neutral. In that case, however, maybe Illini will be picking up some local rooters. Vanderbilt fans who purchased tickets in anticipation that their Commodores would be in the regional certainly won't be cheering for rival Tennessee.
3.) Avoid the second-half letdowns.
It happened again the other night. Ahead by 10 points at halftime against Cal Santa Barbara in the second round, the Illini scored four points in the first 40 seconds of the second half and then didn't score again for over five minutes. What had been a 12-point lead was whittled to one. Although Illinois righted itself thereafter, these second-half letdowns have been disturbingly common this season. The Illini have gotten away with it more times than not. Chances are they won't this weekend.
4.) Role players, step up.
Tauja Catchings did it against Cal Santa Barbara. The Illini defensive whiz found the ball in her hands in the final 20 seconds after the Gauchos converged on All-American Ashley Berggren. Miss the shot, and the Gauchos had a chance to tie it up and force overtime. Make it, and Illinois was on its way to Nashville. Sophomore Catchings, 2 of 8 from the field at that point, came through in the clutch. If the Illini are to advance through this regional, they'll need more such big plays from unexpected sources. Berggren can't do it all if opponents are absolutely determined to stop her.
5.) Rebound, rebound, rebound.
Then rebound some more. The Illini have done a terrific job this season of holding opposing shooters in check. Illinois' field-goal defensive percentage of 39.1 is the best in the Big Ten. But those misses work in the Illini's favor only if they can control the defensive boards. One-and-done applies not only to the single-elimination format of this tournament, but to the offensive possessions of misfiring opponents if Illinois rebounds.
6.) Take care of the ball.
Statistically, the Illini have an edge on their opponents in virtually every category this season. But steals and turnovers aren't among them. They've turned the ball over 26 more times and seen opponents come up with 47 more steals. At tournament time, when the intensity of defense cranks up several notches, the teams that play fast and loose with the ball get burned even more.
7.) Play relaxed.
OK, that's easier said than done, given what's at stake. But after months in the role of favorite and being expected to win, Illinois finds itself in the rare role of underdog. North Carolina is higher ranked and higher seeded. The Tar Heels have the better record and are hotter. The Illini can make that work for them, convince themselves that the pressure's all on UNC. Convince themselves to give it their best shot, and whatever happens happens. And unless Rutgers pulls off a monumental upset of Tennessee, the Illini would be in the same psychological position Monday night if they win Saturday.
8.) Remember the first half at Knoxville.
That nasty second-half collapse at Tennessee last December no doubt is what sticks in Illinois' memory as it returns to the Volunteer State. But for one half, the Illini did to the mighty Lady Vols what no team has this season, taking a 41-24 lead at the break. It was almost shocking to see how dominant Illinois was for most of 20 minutes against the best women's basketball team in the land. If the Illini were capable of doing that, they should know they belong on the court with anyone in this tournament. As the Illini return to Tennessee – and a possible rematch with the Vols – they would do well to recall how good their team can play.
9.) Keep a close watch on Jessica Gaspar.
All-American Tracy Reid and former Parade Magazine prep player of the year Nikki Teasley are North Carolina's marquee names. But don't try to convince Florida International that Gaspar is any less dangerous. Although she averages 5.2 points a game, the junior guard came off the bench Sunday to fire in 15 timely points in UNC's 85-72 second-round victory. Gaspar scored eight in the opening 7:17 of the second half to help North Carolina fend off an FIU comeback from 13 down. Gaspar made sure FIU never got closer than four.
10.) Don't get caught up in the Rutgers' ties.
In the unlikely event that Rutgers would defeat Tennessee, an Illinois win over UNC would pit UI coach Theresa Grentz against her former school. Ditto for Illini center Alicia Sheeler, who followed Grentz from Rutgers in 1995. A great story angle, to be sure. Count on the large East Coast press contingent in particular to play it up for all it's worth. But Grentz is savvy enough to deal with the inevitable questions. And responses like, "This is Illinois against Rutgers, not Grentz against Rutgers," are meant not only for the press, but for her players.