Reserves come through for foul-prone Illini

CHAMPAIGN — Matt Bollant has indicated he’ll typically stick with a seven- or eight-player rotation.

The first-year Illini coach needed contributions from all of them to overcome major foul trouble Sunday in a season-opening win against Evansville.

Eight Illini played at least 18 minutes as Bollant mixed and matched to cope with widespread fouls. Reserves Taylor Tuck, McKenzie Piper and Nia Oden responded with a combined 33 points, 12 rebounds and four assists.

“That’s part of being a team,” he said. “Different individuals got to step up at different times, especially if we’re in foul trouble or if something goes wrong.”

Three Illini, including two starters, finished with four fouls. A total of seven players were whistled for at least three fouls.

“I think part of that was the excitement of the first game,” said Bollant, whose team had 13 of its 25 fouls in the first half. “We got a little tight and our feet weren’t (moving) quite as good. We struggled to guard in the first half.”

With Alexis Smith saddled with three fouls by halftime, the Illini point guard was limited to 24 minutes of playing time. Bollant turned to Tuck to fill that void and saw the sophomore produce 12 points, two assists and three steals.

Tuck, a lanky 6-footer who is listed on the roster as a forward, said it was the first time she ever had played the point in a game.

“My team helps me, so all the pressure wasn’t on me,” Tuck said.

Bollant said he recently settled on Tuck as his backup point guard after initially considering 5-10 guard Ivory Crawford.

“(Tuck is) so fast that the way we want to play, we want a fast point guard,” the UI coach said. “And (we) just challenged her (to work on her ball handling) ... and she’s done great.

“She makes good decisions with the ball, and she’s so long and athletic that when she gets by (a defender), she makes you pay.”

First things first. Bollant also won his debut games at Bryan College in 2002 and at Wisconsin-Green Bay in 2007.

“That’s probably the hardest thing as a coach is the first game — all the unknowns,” he said.

In Bollant’s case, he now knows that his Illini team can survive foul trouble and can make an opponent pay for packing in its defense with three-pointers.

All the same, Bollant said he wasn’t apprehensive for his Illini debut.

“There’s so many unknowns that a lot of coaches go into the first game with a lot of fear, and I didn’t,” he said. “I went into today with a lot of confidence. ... I felt peace this morning and felt very good about our chances of playing well.”

Fan favorite. As the game wound down, Bollant summoned junior college transfer Cassie Dumoulin and walk-on Eriel Davis of Danville off the bench. Dumoulin is the oldest of 10 siblings and she had a large group of family and friends on hand for her first regular season game in an Illini uniform.

When the 5-8 guard went to the scorer’s table, the Dumoulin clan erupted with cheers. Problem was, she remained there for what must have seemed like minutes because there was no stop in the action on the court. Finally, with Illinois in possession of the ball and 1:24 left, Bollant called a time out to get the two players in the game.

That got Dumoulin’s supporters off their feet again to cheer their favorite player.

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