CHAMPAIGN — Matt Bollant was sitting in a Chicago area high school gym the first time he saw Ivory Crawford play basketball.
The Proviso East prospect made quite the impression that day.
“Gosh, that’s one of the best point guards I’ve seen,” the then-head coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay thought.
Bollant, the recruiter, didn’t land Crawford, but circumstances eventually would bring these two together. The sophomore combo guard is among the players Bollant inherited when he was hired last March to revive a struggling Illinois program.
With performances like the one Crawford turned in Sunday, that task should be accomplished sooner rather than later.
“She hit every shot it seemed like,” marveled teammate Amber Moore after Crawford poured in a career-high 32 points to lead the Illini to an 83-64 victory against Cleveland State at the Assembly Hall.
Crawford indeed was perfect — at least from three-point range, sinking all four of her attempts beyond the arc. And she was nearly so from the foul line, going 6 for 7.
In fact, Crawford missed only four of the 21 shots she launched overall when you combine field goal and free throw attempts.
“It was fun (to watch),” Moore said. “She’s one that can give you buckets any time, so we know she has the potential, and she showed it tonight.”
Moore, a junior who ranks fifth in program history in career three-pointers, contributed four treys on this day, too. It was the kind of long-range one-two punch that Bollant would love to see more of from his team.
“Great to have another three-point shooter,” he said. “We’ve got a great one in Amber, and if Ivory can be consistent, that will really help our team.”
With her outburst, Crawford became the first Illini to score 30-plus points since Moore racked up 31 last February against Northwestern.
It didn’t exactly come from out of nowhere. After all, Crawford scored 18 against Bradley on Thursday. It was a career best that lasted exactly three days.
“This one will be a little tougher to beat,” Bollant cracked.
As it turns out, Crawford found motivation in that Bradley game — not from her success but from failure. An 0-for-5 shooting night from three-point range didn’t set well with the Chicago native.
“I always reach for a goal,” she said. “Whatever I do that I didn’t succeed last game ... I took the time in practice to just practice and practice and practice (shooting threes).”
Crawford wasted no time Sunday showing it had paid off. The first two shots she attempted were from beyond the arc.
With Crawford scoring 10 points, Illinois (2-1) sprinted to a 15-0 lead against the Vikings (1-2).
“It was a great start to the game,” Bollant said. “We came out with the mentality that we’re going to attack.”
Crawford would finish the first half with 14 points, not missing a single field goal or free throw attempt.
Bollant thinks Crawford’s recent surge is a reflection of her current fitness level. In the Illini’s second-to-last game last season, Crawford tore knee cartilage and required arthroscopic surgery in April. It wasn’t until mid-September, the UI coach said, that she was cleared to resume training.
“So she was kind of behind conditioning-wise and she just didn’t have that quick first step that she’s known for,” Bollant said. “And I think today you could see her speed and her quickness that she has. I think she’s getting back to being more healthy, and her legs are a little fresher now.”
So far, so good. Through three games, Crawford is averaging a team-high 20.3 points on 55.4 percent shooting.
“I would never think that I would come back like this,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but people say when you come off an injury, you’re much stronger than you were. And it shocks me because I’m stronger than I was last year.
“I have no knee problems, no nothing.”
Helping hands. The Illini were in a sharing mood with the ball, recording 24 assists on their 32 field goals. Sophomore point guard Alexis Smith finished with 13 assists, tying the third most for a single game in program history. At the same time, Illinois limited its turnovers to nine. “To have 15 more assists than turnovers says a lot about our team making the easy pass,” Bollant said. “I thought Alexis was fantastic running the break and making great decisions.”
Fouled up. It didn’t affect the outcome, but the short-handed Illini were forced to deal with some serious foul trouble for much of the game. McKenzie Piper, filling in for injured starter Kersten Magrum, was limited to 12 minutes before fouling out. Reserve Nia Oden also fouled out, and starter Karisma Penn picked up her fourth foul with 12:36 left in the game. With Magrum out with a separated shoulder, Bollant used seven players for all but the final 1:08. When Oden fouled out with 8:53 left, the Illini were down to five players plus little-used reserves Cassie Dumoulin and Eriel Davis. The latter two entered the game with Illinois leading 81-60. Davis, a walk-on from Danville, scored the first two points of her Illini career.