CHAMPAIGN — In honor of Matt Bollant’s first game as Illinois women’s basketball coach, his players threw a three-point party.
The guests from Evansville didn’t find it festive.
Raining down 11 treys on the Purple Aces, the Illini cruised to an 84-52 nonconference victory in front of 1,625 fans at the Assembly Hall to open the Bollant Era.
Welcome to the job, Coach. And feel free to think long range. Just like your shooters.
“As good as we drive the ball and as good as our post game is, when we can knock down threes, it makes us really hard to guard,” Bollant said. “We add that piece and we’re probably going to put up a lot of points when we shoot it well.”
One game in, Illinois already has matched the highest single-game point total produced by last season’s team. And one major reason was a three-point shooting display that ranked with the best in program history. Those 11 treys tied for the third-most ever in one game by the Illini.
Bollant wasn’t necessarily surprised.
“In the last month we’ve gone from not great shooting to, gosh, pretty solid,” he said. “You can see their confidence growing. And we have a lot of different players who can shoot it.”
Indeed, four Illini contributed from beyond the arc as the team shot 44 percent on 25 attempts.
Not surprisingly, Amber Moore was the ringleader. The junior guard, who is No. 5 on the school list for career three-pointers, went 5 for 11 from long range en route to a game-high 19 points. Three of her treys came in the first half, when Illinois initially struggled to get its attack in gear.
“I thought Amber was huge in that first half,” Bollant said. “We were a little bit tight and struggling to score, and some of her threes got us going.”
Ivory Crawford was on her long-range game, too, sinking 3 of 4 three-pointers. Freshman McKenzie Piper, who came off the bench to score 14 points, contributed two three-pointers. And sophomore Nia Oden, who appeared in nine games last season, hit the first three-pointer of her Illini career.
“We work on (three-pointers) every day,” Moore said. “It’s improved a lot, and it shows.”
Of course, this 32-point victory was built on more than sharp shooting. The defense held Evansville (1-1) to 12 field goals and 25.5 percent shooting from the field. Led by Karisma Penn’s game-high 12 rebounds, the Illini outboarded the Purple Aces 52-36. And Illinois put pressure on Evansville’s defense by sharing the ball. Five Illini scored between 11 and 19 points, and Bollant’s team produced 19 assists on their 29 field goals.
About the only sore points were too many fouls (25), which led to too many Evansville free throws (the Aces scored almost half their points, 25, at the line).
But for a first game, Bollant mostly liked what he saw. And he was eager to give Illini fans an up-close look at this team, sending his players into the stands after the final buzzer to thank fans for coming.
“I’ve done that every place I’ve been,” the former Bryan College and Wisconsin-Green Bay coach said. “We just want to say thank you because there’s a lot of women’s basketball teams that don’t get supported. We don’t take (fan support) for granted.”